Published March 15, 2013
PALM HARBOR, Fla. – Shawn Stefani likes to talk about being patient on the golf course, and he showed that in the opening round of the Tampa Bay Championship. His longest putt for par was just inside 5 feet on his final hole for a 6-under 65 and a two-shot lead.
He also was patient getting to this position.
Stefani, who grew up in the Houston area, spent five years at Lamar before turning pro. He spent one year on the Adams Golf Tour, moved on to the Hooters Tour and then spent the next four years playing where he could and trying to Monday qualify for Nationwide Tour events.
"Just not playing good at the right time," he said Thursday. "I don't think it had anything to do with a lack of work. I've always been a hard worker. It was just the wrong time for me.
"Everybody kind of goes and hits their strides differently. I'm more of a patient guy, just kind of wait for things to happen. I know eventually things will start clicking."
That's what happened on a pleasant, breezy afternoon at Innisbrook.
With the wind at his back, he hit wedge into 2 feet for birdie on the 10th hole to start his round. He made birdie on all four of the par 5s with a short game that he practiced for two solid days earlier in the week. He added his other birdie with a 20-foot putt on the third hole.
Most importantly, he made few mistakes. Stefani missed only three greens, got up-and-down from the bunker all three times and had to play out of the rough just once, with a tee shot he missed slightly to the left on No. 3.
"If you can drive the ball well out here, you can give yourself enough opportunities," Stefani said. "But it's a tough driving course, and I was able to hit a lot of fairways, which put me in good position to make birdies."
That gave him a two-shot lead over Brian Harman, who also was bogey-free until he hit into a bunker on his final hole at No. 9 and had to settle for a 67.
Harman has had some good rounds this year, such as his 65 in Phoenix on the second day, closing with a 66 in Puerto Rico and even the 67 he had at Riviera. But this one stood out for other reasons.
"This is definitely, probably the best thought-out round that I had," he said. "I had a great game plan and stuck to it all day."
That included his lone bogey, when he wasn't sure if his ball would jump out of the rough to the right of the ninth fairway. He opted for less club, a 7-iron, figuring that anything long would lead to bogey. He came up short and still made bogey, but at least he had a chance at par.
Harris English finished on the 18th and also hit into a bunker, except that he three-putted from 40 feet above the hole and had a double bogey. That gave him a 68, tied with Brendan Steele and Tag Ridings. Geoff Ogilvy, at No. 49 in the world and needing to stay in the top 50 the next three weeks to get into the Masters, was in the large group at 69 that included Lucas Glover and a pair of past champions in Vijay Singh and K.J. Choi.
The Copperhead course lived up to its reputation as one of the best on tour, regarded by many as the best on the Florida swing. The course played to an average of 73.07, with only 13 players in the 60s and 25 players who managed to break par.
Defending champion Luke Donald opened with a 70 and was angrier than usual, a testament to the course. Donald was poised to open with a great round, at 4 under with four holes to play despite missing three birdie chances inside 12 feet.
A poor drive led to bogey on the sixth. His tee shot on the par-3 eighth rolled toward the back lip of a bunker. And then a flier out of the rough on No. 9 sailed over the green and into a slope in the bunker with very little sand. That made for three bogeys in four holes, and turned a solid round into a frustrating one.
"At one point I felt I should have been 5 or 6 under," Donald said. "To walk off with a 70 and play like that is hard to take. It was shame to cough up a couple of shots. Fifteen of those holes, I played really solid golf."
Some of the early starters arrived in darkness, the temperatures cool and the wind already blowing.
It hasn't been the best weather on the PGA Tour this year. Already there was such high wind at Kapalua that the tournament didn't start until the fourth day. Fog wiped out an entire day in San Diego. Snow put the Match Play Championship one day behind. And temperatures were in the 40s early Sunday when the tour first arrived in Florida.
"It felt more like a major championship today," Steele said. "Usually the head at the U.S. Open is a few under after the first round at least, even if the winning score ends up being over par. To see it only be 3 under at this point is really a testament to how good the golf course is and how difficult the conditions are. Put that combo together and it's not a course that you fake it around. It's not a course you can get away with bad shots."
Stefani didn't hit many of those. He struggled coming in, having to save par from a bunker on No. 8 and making that short par putt on his last hole.
He became the latest rookie to look comfortable on a big stage.
Russell Henley won the Sony Open, and another rookie (Scott Langley) played with him in the final group. Three others have played in the final group this year — Brad Fritsch at Torrey Pines, James Hahn at Pebble Beach and Luke Guthrie two weeks ago at the Honda Classic.
"It's great to see those guys play well, because I competed with those guys all last year and they all won — except Scott — on the Web.com last year a few times and they are all super nice guys, good players," Stefani said.