Couples, Price Share Lead at Wachovia

Friday, May 9th 2003, 12:00 am
By: News On 6

CHARLOTTE, N.C. (AP) _ Players came off the course at Quail Hollow and felt like they were at a major championship. When the first round of the new Wachovia Championship ended, it certainly looked like one.

At the top with a bogey-free 66 was the resurgent Fred Couples, who won the 1992 Masters at the peak of his career and is starting to play like he might have another in him.

Joining him in the lead was Nick Price, a three-time major winner who only two days ago was announced as the latest member of the World Golf Hall of Fame.

One stroke behind was Rich Beem, the PGA champion.

``I wouldn't be surprised if in the future there would be either a U.S. Open or a PGA on this golf course, because they can make this golf course as hard as they want to,'' Price said. ``If they grow these fairways in and firm these greens up, even par is a great score.

``I think we'll see that on Saturday and Sunday if we don't get any rain.''

No one was surprised to see Couples and Price with a share of the lead.

Couples is playing for the first time since he won the Houston Open two weeks ago, his first victory in five years. Thursday was the fourth consecutive round he has had at least a share of the lead on tour.

``I'm riding this wave and playing well,'' he said.

Price won last year at Colonial, but there are some similarities with Quail Hollow. The course is long at 7,396 yards, but the premium is on shaping the ball to fairways that drop and bend through the trees.

Price birdied four of his last seven holes, saving par with an 8-foot putt on No. 9.

It was a prime example why he's not bothered by a course that measures 7,396 yards. Price had 201 yards left to the green, but was able to hit a low iron that ran up and just over the putting surface.

``It's a straightforward, honest golf course,'' Price said. ``There is no goofiness to it. I don't mind playing a par-4 that's 490 yards long if you allow me to run the ball up to the green. You get what you play here. I think that's what we all look for on a great course.''

Only 10 players shot in the 60s, and just 41 out of the 156 broke par.

Couples had the most consistent round, playing 18 holes without a bogey and attacking the par 5s with booming 3-woods that set up easy birdies.

``I don't expect to be leading every round the rest of the year,'' he said. ``But I know what to expect.''

He practically guaranteed the score he shot Thursday would be a rarity this week.

``You can see what's going to happen,'' he said. ``It's going to firm up, and all this 66 stuff is going to go away.''

Paul Goydos holed out from 199 yards in the 18th fairway for eagle and joined Jeff Brehaut at 68.

Mike Weir, in his first tournament since winning the Masters, holed an 8-iron from 161 yards in the rough at No. 11 for eagle and wound up at 72.

Like most players, anything around par was satisfactory. The only disappointment for the Canadian was his introduction on the first tee. Just like the course, it was straightforward _ no mention of anything he has won lately, like a green jacket.

``I was waiting for that ringing in my ear ... Masters champion,'' Weir said with a smile. ``Maybe I'll get that down the road.''

The most peculiar part of the first round was that the best scoring came in the afternoon, when Quail Hollow began to dry out. Stephen Ames had the best score among early starters, a 3-under 69.

David Toms and Charles Howell III were in the large group at 70. Both played in the morning, and both had no complaints.

``I played well and shot 2 under,'' Howell said. ``If you shoot 2 under at New Orleans, you're thinking about jumping off a building.''

Toms, who hasn't won since 2001, found Quail Hollow as advertised _ tough, fair and waiting for a call from the USGA.

``It's a U.S. Open-style golf course, except I think there are a few more birdie opportunities,'' he said. ``Just a great test of golf. Come Sunday afternoon, you're going to have to play some really good golf to be able to win. And I like that.''

It's the first PGA Tour event in Charlotte since the Kemper Open left for Maryland in 1979, and the gallery soaked in every minute of it.

Tiger Woods isn't around, but that didn't seem to matter by the end of the day. The great play came from Price, and Couples supplied the charisma.

It all added up to a smashing start to the newest event on the PGA Tour.