The upper reaches of the leaderboard of the Honda Classic at Palm Beach Gardens, Florida, were populated by a bevy of unfamiliar names after the first day of play on Thursday, February 28th – names like Boo Weekley, Rickie Fowler, and Camilo Villegas.
Boo Weekley, who ended the day T-6 with a four-under 66, was little seen on leaderboards in 2012, making only 13 of 25 cuts, carding five Top 25 finishes, with a T-3 at the Puerto Rico Open – an opposite-field event to the WGC-Cadillac Championship. Rickie Fowler, T-2 today with a 5-under 65, got his first win on the PGA Tour last year, at the Wells Fargo Championship, but played inconsistently overall, with only five Top 10s and eight Top 25 finishes. The biggest surprise of all, though, had to be the name of the man who sits atop the leaderboard after eighteen holes – Camilo Villegas.
Hailed as one of the up-and-coming young guns of the PGA Tour when he broke out after a collegiate career at the University of Florida, the young Colombian struggled with his game in 2012 and his on-course earnings dropping from $14,864,210 in 2011 to $491,729. Despite making 15 of 25 cuts last year, he managed only four Top 25 finishes. Two months on in the 2013 season, he has made only one of three cuts, at the Humana Challenge, where he fired three straight 67s after an opening-round 71, which was only good enough for T-47 in the traditionally low-scoring desert event.
Today Villegas played more like the fit, fiery young champion-to-be that he was made out to be early in his career, carding a clean-card 64 – his best score on this course – with birdies on the 8th, 13th and 15th holes of the Jack Nicklaus-designed course. Villegas capped his round by going an additional three strokes lower with par, birdie and eagle on holes 16 through 18 – aka “The Bear Trap” – the three notoriously difficult holes that close out the course. The eagle at the par-five 18th come on the strength of a soaring 3-wood to the green from 285 yards out – his 268-yard shot left him an 8-foot 10-inch putt for a three.
A former champion in this event, in 2010, Villegas was asked in a post-round interview if his decision to go for the green in two on the 18th hole was based on previous experience here.
“I had a perfect number there”, he replied. “It was just a normal 3‑wood. I have a new 3‑wood in the bag which is feeling pretty good. My caddie said, ‘Where are you going to go with this one?’ and I said, ‘I’m looking straight at that flag’, and I hit a great shot.”
Two Northern California golfers in the event, San Bruno’s James Hahn and Stockton native Ricky Barnes, had middling days today, each carding one more bogey than birdie to close out their first round at one-over 71, T-81. With 143 men in the field, Barnes and Hahn will have to step up their games tomorrow if they are to play the weekend. Hahn, a 31-year-old rookie who is playing his first season as a PGA Tour member, has a six-tournament made-cut streak at risk if he isn’t able to come back with a better round on Friday.