After not hitting a shot in competition in the last eight months because of a chronic back injury, Fred Couples' goal heading into Friday's opening round of the PGA Tour Champions PowerShares QQQ Championship at Sherwood Country Club was to make it through 18 holes and be standing and feeling good afterward.
The former Masters champion accomplished that and more, finishing with a 4-under 68 that put him just three shots off the lead held by Colin Montgomerie.
"Honestly, I could have shot 80 and been OK with it because my goals were just to be able to swing and play," Couples said. "Today was just a very nice day.
"It's not like I sat out and I've been practicing for a month getting ready for this. I mean, tomorrow will be different. You know, I haven't been in a golf tournament, let alone wherever I'm going to be, top-5, top-10."
Rain at the start of Friday's round softened the conditions at Sherwood, making the course play longer than in practice rounds but the moisture also made the greens more receptive and slightly slower.
While Montgomerie's 65 was easily the best round of the day, a good chunk of the field took advantage of the benign conditions, creating a logjam near the top of the leaderboard.
A group of six players, highlighted by Scott McCarron and Fred Funk, are two shots behind Montgomerie at 5 under.
Couples heads an equally large group at 4 under, one that also includes Stephen Ames and Esteban Toledo. A dozen players, including Mark O'Meara, Tom Lehman and Rocco Mediate, are tied at 3 under.
"Very happy, anytime that you play a round of golf without a mistake," Montgomerie said. "Even Ben Hogan allowed himself two mistakes a round of golf. So no bogeys around here is good, very good and that was key today. Hit the fairways, hit the greens, that's what this course is all about."
While many in the field have played Sherwood over the years in other events, no one has played the course more than Couples. He estimates he's played more than 100 rounds at the Thousand Oaks course.
Knowing virtually every nook and cranny on the course helped Couples navigate it Friday without getting into too much trouble.
"I didn't really hit many bad shots," Couples said.
Couples finished Thursday's Pro-Am late in the day and with an early 8:30 tee time Friday he was a little edgy about how his back would respond. He got up at 4 a.m. and did his stretching routine and said other than a brief twinge on No. 9, he felt good throughout the round.
He was just 1 under through his first nine, but then birdied four of his first five holes on the back nine, the only hiccup coming on the aforementioned par-5 11th hole.
"It played long, but I don't think length is a huge deal on this course," Couples said. "I think you've got to be pretty accurate, know where you're going."
Montgomerie got off to a fast start by making birdies on the first three holes, and came back with four more on the back nine. After just missing birdie putts on 16 and 17, Montgomerie closed out his round in style, nearly knocking his approach on 18 in the hole for eagle, settling instead for a tap-in birdie.
Montgomerie showed up at Sherwood feeling familiar with the course.
"I was lucky enough to be invited by Tiger (Woods) to his tournament many times here so I knew my way around here and I was quite confident coming here," Montgomerie said. "I think Freddie and I have an advantage having played the World Challenge here (so often). Some of the guys have only played two or three practice rounds and it's quite difficult to get the bearings within two rounds.
"We know our way around here provided, of course, you've still got to hit it in that position, but delighted with today's score."
Funk said he came into this week's event not firing on all cylinders so he was thrilled to get off to such a nice start. His round of 67 was highlighted by an eagle-3 on the par-5 11th hole.
"I kind of just worked it around the golf course," Funk said. "What was strange was I was kind of worried about how my ball striking would be and the first seven holes I had it inside 15 feet every hole.
"I was like, 'Wow, this is pretty cool.' And then I struggled a little bit here and there, but it was a good day overall."
This article was written by Bob Buttitta from Ventura County Star and was legally licensed through the NewsCred publisher network.
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