By Cam Huffman
WHITE SULPHUR SPRINGS —
The talk all week at The Greenbrier Classic has been of days gone by — tournaments like the 1979 Ryder Cup and golfing legends like Sam Snead. On Thursday, Vijay Singh gave fans on The Old White TPC course another reason to turn back the clock.
The 49-year-old Fijian, who hasn’t won on the PGA TOUR since 2008, fired a 7-under-par 63 to take the opening-round lead at The Greenbrier’s third-year event.
“Gosh, I don’t know where that came from,” said Singh, who has just one Top 10 finish in 17 events on TOUR this year. “I’ve been playing pretty good golf for a while but just never got any scoring going. But today it seemed l hit it close and drove the ball really well, hit a lot of greens and made some nice putts.”
Scores were low on Thursday, with more than 60 players finishing under par, bringing about memories of the tournament’s first year in 2010, when Stuart Appleby won with a score of 22-under for the week that included a 59 on Sunday.
Singh wasn’t the only 40-something near the top of the leaderboard. Jeff Maggert, a 48-year-old who last won in 2006, was one of three golfers one shot back after carding a 64.
“Every week now, it seems like I’m the oldest guy in the field,” said the three-time PGA TOUR winner. “But I saw Vijay’s playing and Tom (Watson) is here this week and Kenny Perry. So there’s a few guys older than me. There’s a lot of guys out here in their 40s, late 40s, that can really play some good golf. So it’s not surprising to see some of the old guys up on the leaderboard.”
Maggert was joined in second place by a pair of young guns — 30-year-old Martin Flores, a 2011 Nationwide Tour graduate, and 34-year-old Jonathan Byrd, who birdied five of his last 10 holes. A bogey on the par-3 8th hole is all that kept the former Clemson golfer from a share of the lead.
But most of the fans on the first day weren’t there to see Singh, Maggert or Byrd. Huge galleries followed every move of first-time participant Tiger Woods, and the FedEx Cup points leader gave them an up-and-down day.
The champion of last week’s AT&T National — who started his round on No. 10 — began with a pair of birdies on the first three holes, but he bogeyed No. 13 and doubled 17. He was even on the front nine, with two birdies and two bogeys, and ended with a 1-over 71 in a tie for 88th place.
“I just didn’t quite have my game or didn’t have the speed on the greens, too,” said a frustrated Woods following the round. “I missed literally every single putt high today. I never hit one that missed on the low side. Every one’s missing high. I had too much break, and it didn’t work out.”
Hoping to avoid the same fate suffered by the biggest name at last year’s Greenbrier Classic — Phil Mickelson, who also finished with a 1-over 71 Thursday, after missing the cut in 2011 — Woods said he planned on avoiding any of the entertainment the resort offers, instead focusing on his game.
“First I need to eat, and then I need to practice,” he said. “I’m going to do a little bit of work — definitely need to change my reads. We’re going to go out there, hit a few putts and get that organized.”
Singh, a three-time Major winner who has suffered through back injuries and a pair of knee surgeries, took some time to get warmed up after his 7:50 a.m. tee time — he was just 1-under after nine — but he found his stroke on No. 11 and birdied six of the final nine holes, including a dramatic 36-footer on No. 15.
“I missed about a five-footer on 14 and then made that bomb on 15 to make up for the last one,” he said. “I hit some good shots coming in — had a great bunker shot on 17 and hit it close on 18.”
A run at another win wouldn’t be out of the question for Singh, who has won more times (22) since turning 40 than any golfer in history, a record he took from Snead, a former Greenbrier Pro Emeritus. The key this week will be consistency.
Singh has had some good rounds this season, but he hasn’t put together four straight. He fired a 64 in the opening round of the Farmers Insurance Open in January, only to shoot a 75 in the second round to fall back. He shot a 68 at the Wells Fargo Championship in January, but followed with a 77 and missed the cut. Last week, he opened with a 68 at the AT&T National and stayed in contention with a 70 in round No. 2. But an 81 on Sunday provided a less than pleasing finish.
“Hopefully this keeps going,” said Singh of his strong start. “I don’t feel tired; I feel really energized. I’ve been working really hard on my game, so it’s nice to see something happen.”
The only West Virginian in the tournament, Fairmont native Jess Ferrell struggled playing with the game’s best, carding a 10-over-par 80. Other notable scores from the opening round included John Daly (-2), Tom Watson (E) and Jim Furyk (+1).
Today’s second round will begin with 7 a.m. tee times on Nos. 1 and 10. Singh will play with Chris Kirk and Gary Woodland, teeing off on No. 10 at 1 p.m. Woods, playing with U.S. Open champion Webb Simpson and Steve Stricker, is scheduled for a 1:20 p.m. tee time on No. 1, with Mickelson’s group — which also includes the two Greenbrier Classic champions, Appleby and 2011 champ Scott Stallings — set to go off of No. 10 at 8:10 a.m.
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The Golf Channel’s Big Break reality competition’s 18th season will showcase The Greenbrier this fall.
Big Break Greenbrier, produced in June and scheduled to premier Oct. 2, will feature 12 male professional golfers competing for an exemption to the 2013 Greenbrier Classic, as well as cash and other prizes.
The series was filmed on The Greenbrier’s four courses — The Old White TPC, The Greenbrier Course, The Meadows Course and The Snead Course.
“We are excited about hosting our newest Big Break season at The Greenbrier and offering the winner the opportunity to compete in the 2013 Greenbrier Classic,” said Tom Knapp, The Golf Channel’s senior vice president of programming. “Big Break is one of the longest-running series on television and one of our most important original series franchises, and we strive to give our competitors tough tests on the golf course, while showcasing a picturesque location. We accomplished both with Big Break Greenbrier.”
The Big Break format puts golfers through a number of different challenges, with one contestant being eliminated each week.
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Stricker’s caddie during the first round of The Greenbrier Classic had a different look than most.
After originally deciding not to play in this week’s PGA TOUR event, Stricker gave his regular caddy, Jimmy Johnson, the week off to take vacation. He later decided to make the trip to The Greenbrier, but he didn’t want to go back on his promise to his caddie. Instead, he has his wife, Nicki, helping him this week.
Although Nicki gets a few double-takes from the gallery, she’s no stranger to the assignment. Her father, Dennis Tiziani is Stricker’s swing coach, and she caddied for her husband from 1994 until 1998, helping him win twice during that stretch.
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The world-famous Budweiser Clydesdales made an appearance at The Greenbrier Thursday, delivering a ceremonial case of Budweiser to the resort’s front entrance. On Saturday, one of the horses will be in downtown Lewisburg from 2-4 p.m. A single horse will also make an appearance for a photo opportunity at The Greenbrier springhouse from 11 a.m. until 1 p.m. Sunday.