40-Somethings Dominate Day at Players

Friday, March 28th 2003, 12:00 am
By: News On 6

PONTE VEDRA BEACH, Fla. (AP) _ Throw in a few more lime-green shirts, checkered pants and wide collars, and this could have been retro day at The Players Championship.

With Tiger Woods struggling, the opening round Thursday was downright groovy _ a showcase for 40-somethings Fred Couples, Bob Tway, Jay Haas and Rocco Mediate on one of golf's toughest courses.

Tway, Haas and Mediate all shot 4-under-par 68s to share the lead with 38-year-old Skip Kendall. Couples, a two-time champion here, led briefly at 5 under and wound up one stroke behind through 14 holes when rain forced the players off the course.

``As a past champion, it's a fun spot to play,'' said Couples, one of 68 players who will complete their first rounds Friday. ``But you want to play well.''

A windy, cool day on the volatile TPC at Sawgrass course didn't seem to bother the older guys as much as it played havoc with Woods.

The world's best player struggled to find his swing all day and finished at 72, four strokes behind.

The few times he felt like he hit the ball well, he felt he got bad breaks _ like on No. 7, when a well-struck tee shot took a weird bounce into an uphill lie in the deep grass. He saved par there, but wound up with three bogeys, including back-to-back on Nos. 4 and 5.

``Just trying to get to even par would have been a heck of an accomplishment considering the way I was hitting it today,'' Woods said. ``I'm very happy to end up where I was.''

Woods won by 11 last week at Bay Hill for his third victory in four starts this year.

He came in as the prohibitive favorite to win the sport's richest tournament, and with the second- and third-best players _ Ernie Els and Phil Mickelson _ absent this week, there were questions about where the challenge would come from.

Surprisingly, it came from a group of veterans who were kicking around the tour in Sansabelts around the time Woods was just starting to swing a golf club.

Haas, 49, needs a good finish this week to get an invitation to the Masters. Regardless of whether he gets it, he plans to do most of his playing on the Champions Tour very soon.

``I think my skills have deteriorated some,'' Haas conceded. ``But I was never a long hitter and I was never an unbelievable ball striker and I was never an unbelievable putter. I was just a good player in a lot of different parts of my game.''

They were on display in a first round in which only 21 of the 76 players who finished broke par.

Also near the top of the leaderboard were 44-year-old Tom Lehman (3 under) and 43-year-old Corey Pavin (2 under), who chipped in from the fringe on No. 9 for birdie.

Mediate, 40, is a hometown favorite who was near the lead last year before closing with a 73 to finish three shots behind.

``The beauty of our game is you've got to do it for four days,'' Mediate said. ``If you don't, this day is worthless.''

John Daly is in contention. On a course he rarely plays well, he took a more patient approach _ hitting irons off 10 tees, more than he usually does _ and finished at 2 under.

``I feel like I'm a little more patient with this golf course, but any given hole, you could hit a decent shot and walk off with an 8,'' he said. ``So, it's nice to finally get off to a decent start here.''

The signature hole is the par-3 No. 17 island hole, and no round goes by without a few interesting moments.

On Day 1, it was Jay Williamson providing the fun, when his tee shot flew over the green and bounced along the bridge until it hopped into the rough. He bounced his next shot back up the bridge, and escaped with a bogey.

By Sunday, the 137-yard hole will play like one of the toughest in golf. Woods grinded his way to an even-par round and kept himself in the running to be hanging around come then.

``I kept myself in the ballgame,'' he said. ``I'm only four shots out of the lead, and the way the conditions are, par or better today is a good, solid round.''