Davis takes the lead, with Tiger lurking

Friday, February 18th 2005, 8:53 am

By: News On 6

LOS ANGELES (AP) _ Tiger Woods tossed his putter some 40 feet at his bag after going from the right fringe to the left fringe and making bogey. He took an angry swing after missing a short birdie putt. And he ended his round watching two putts burn the edge of the cup.

He still managed a 4-under 67, leaving him two shots behind Brian Davis of England after the first round of the Nissan Open. Despite his career struggles at Riviera, Woods had a hard time finding the bright spot in what turned out to be a rainy day.

``I putted like a fool today,'' Woods said. ``It was an absolutely horrific day on the greens. But I'm hitting it great. If I would have just putted normal today, I probably could have shot an 8 under with not too much effort.''

Davis made it around without too much effort.

The 29-year-old Englishman began with a 4-iron into 4 feet for eagle on the par-5 first, finished with eight pars and signed for a 65 to take a one-shot lead over Luke Donald, Darren Clarke and Brett Quigley.

What pleased him the most was the only time he came close to a bogey, making a 12-foot par save from the bunker.

``I've played a lot of links golf, and if you drop a shot, you start fighting it,'' Davis said.

He mentioned links golf on a couple of occasions. The wind was into his face along a stretch of holes on the front, then turned and played into his face on some of the closing holes _ just like it does on some links courses in Britain when the tide changes.

The Nissan Open had a British feel in other areas _ particularly the leaderboard.

Donald, another young Englishman, made three straight birdies on his back nine _ twice with 30-foot putts _ and was tied for the lead until his tee shot on No. 9 landed in a divot near the bunker, and he placed his approach into a bunker to close with a bogey.

Clarke is from Northern Ireland, and he got off to another strong start with one of several highlights in the first round at Riviera. On the par-3 sixth, famous for a bunker situated in the middle of the green, Clarke's 7-iron landed on the skirt of the fringe surrounding the bunker, then spun back into the cup for an ace.

``A little bit of a skill and a lot of luck,'' Clarke said. ``That came at the right time.''

Quigley had one of only seven birdies on the fabled 18th hole, from nearly 50 feet just off the green, to join the group chasing Davis in what figures to be a wet weekend.

The rain started coming down early in the afternoon, not strong enough to stop play but to make the course play longer. Four players failed to finish the first round when play was suspended by darkness.

The forecast is for rain the rest of the week.

``It was a little tough with the rain,'' Donald said. ``I'm glad I was one of the early ones in the afternoon.''

Adam Scott, Jose Coceres, Kevin Sutherland and two-time defending champion Mike Weir joined Woods at 67, while the group at 68 included two-time Masters champion Jose Maria Olazabal and Steve Elkington, who won the 1995 PGA Championship at Riviera in a playoff.

Weir is trying to become the first player in tournament history to win three straight years, and he got off to a solid start. It's the finish the Canadian would like to fix.

Weir had a chance to tie Davis for the lead, in the fairway on the ninth hole, when his approach caught the top of the bunker and settled into the sand. He failed to get up-and-down, and wound up two shots behind.

The Nissan Open has given Woods fits like no other PGA Tour event. It's the only one he has played at least four times without winning, and although his score was his best start in eight tries as a pro, he felt as though he let a good chance get away _ particularly with the weather.

Woods was among the early starters, when the wind was relatively tame and the sun tried to break through the hazy clouds. He made seven birdies, but the three-putts set him back.

``We got a great break on the wind,'' he said. ``I just wish I could have capitalized a little more on that.''

Riviera got its share of spectacular shots. Along with Clarke's ace, John Daly holed out from the ninth fairway for an eagle, the ball catching a slope and then the right edge of the cup. He wound up with a 69. Chris Riley finished at 71, helped by an eagle from the eighth fairway.

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