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Ben Crane one of little-known players atop the Players Championship leaderboard at TPC Sawgrass

PONTE VEDRA BEACH — Despite ideal scoring conditions, the biggest names didn't have their best stuff in the first round of the Players Championship.

So a small group of little-known players took advantage Thursday at challenging TPC Sawgrass.

Ben Crane kept the ball on land — not easy to do on a course where 89 balls found the water — and needed just 22 putts to shoot 7-under 65. Crane, who has two PGA Tour wins, held a one-stroke edge over John Mallinger, Richard Johnson and Alex Cejka.

"It's one of those rounds that you just live for when you're a golfer," said Crane, 33. "And I had one (Thursday) at one of my favorite courses and tournaments of all time."

Meanwhile, Tiger Woods and defending champion Sergio Garcia shot 1-under 71, and Phil Mickelson managed 73.

Woods didn't make a putt longer than 4 feet and missed seven birdie putts inside 12 feet.

"I was in position all day to make putts," he said. "And I just didn't do it."

As for Garcia, there is nothing simple about his game right now. Even with a respectable score, he said he was playing so badly it "makes me want to puke."

Meanwhile, Mickelson fired off three straight birdies then hit only four greens in regulation the rest of the way, the first time he failed to break par in the opening round at TPC Sawgrass in eight years.

"Looked like it was going to be a great round," he said. "And then it just kind of went away."

Crane couldn't relate.

He dropped only two shots — from a bunker on No. 8 and the rough-covered mounds right of the 14th fairway — and made four birdie putts longer than 20 feet (23 feet on No. 3, 30 feet on No. 5, 31 feet on No. 10 and 25 feet on No. 17).

Bigger names lurked in a large group at 67 that included Retief Goosen, David Toms, Camilo Villegas and Scott Verplank, who had two eagles — one of them from 150 yards out on the 15th fairway, another with a long putt on the par-5 second.

That can happen on one of the most exciting courses in golf, where small mistakes can turn into big numbers.

Brian Gay made a small error by trying to reach the fourth green from the left rough, coming up short and into the water. He took a drop, dumped it in the water again, finally got on land and three-putted for a quintuple-bogey 9 on his way to 80, one of five players who didn't break 80.

Or take the group of Steve Lowery, Daniel Chopra and Paul Goydos. They played the par-3 17th in a combined 18 shots, with four balls in the water — and Goydos made par. Lowery put two in the drink and three-putted for 8, while Chopra rinsed two and made 7.

But Crane managed to avoid the mishaps. He opened with consecutive birdies starting at No. 10, made the turn in 33 then ran off five birdies in a six-hole stretch along his back nine.

"How often … from 30 feet do you actually start it there and then the read is correct? And that happened a number of times (Thursday)," he said. "You just smile. You're like, 'Yeah, this is why I play golf right here.' "

Players Championship

leaders

Ben Crane65-7

John Mallinger66 -6

Richard Johnson66 -6

Alex Cejka 66 -6

Notables

Tiger Woods71-1

Sergio Garcia 71-1

Phil Mickelson73+1

Today

Where/TV: Ponte Vedra Beach; 1 p.m., Golf Channel

Course: TPC Sawgrass, Stadium Course (par 72, 7,220 yards)

Weather: Mostly sunny, high 91

Fast facts

TPC tidbits

Shot of the day: Scott Verplank holed out for eagle with an 8-iron from 150 yards on No. 15.

Putt of the day: Camilo Villegas, after chipping into the water on No. 16, made a 35-footer to save par.

By the numbers

14 Balls in the water on the island-green 17th. But that was the third-most waterlogged hole (18 on par-3 13th, 15 on par-4 fourth).

22 Putts in the first round from leader Ben Crane. The field averaged 28.56.

Ben Crane one of little-known players atop the Players Championship leaderboard at TPC Sawgrass 05/07/09 [Last modified: Thursday, May 7, 2009 10:47pm]
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