PALM HARBOR — When the fog finally lifted from Innisbrook on Thursday morning, golfers got their first look at the Copperhead course. And they liked what they saw.
After a 70-minute delay, the skies cleared and the wind died, making the course less intimidating than usual. That was apparent in the first-round scores of the Transitions Championship.
Englishman Paul Casey set the bar with 7-under 64 to take a two-shot lead. But there was a slew of golfers on Casey's tail, including last week's winner, Nick Watney, Wesley Chapel resident Garrett Willis, Martin Laird and Scott Stallings, who all shot 66. There were 10 sitting three shots back at 4 under, including defending champion Jim Furyk, Justin Leonard and Rory Sabbatini, who won two weeks ago in Palm Beach Gardens.
"It was very benign out there,'' said Casey, the No. 7 golfer in the world. "It was beautiful golfing conditions, so you have to take advantage of it.''
He certainly did.
Starting on the back nine, Casey birdied three of his first five holes to rocket up the leaderboard. It got even better on the front nine, where he birdied Nos. 2, 5, 7 and 8 to get to 7 under. Casey had a bogey-free round en route to his 64.
"It was my best ball-striking round of the year,'' said Casey, who is playing in his seventh tournament in nine weeks. "I hit 15 greens (in regulation) and missed a few fairways. But this place is pretty tight. It was fun out there.''
Watney had some fun as well.
Playing just four days after winning the Cadillac Championship at Doral in South Florida (and $1.4 million), he is again in contention. Watney, who started on the back nine, was 7 under through 12 holes before bogeying the par-3 fourth and eighth holes.
Watney said he had no idea what to expect. The past two times he played a tournament after winning, he missed the cut and shot an opening-round 75.
"I'm just a little bit tired,'' Watney said. "I was on such a high for about 21/2 days. Then on Wednesday at about noon, I just hit the wall. I didn't know if it was going to carry over. I'm very happy to see that it did.''
Willis, who plays regularly at Lake Jovita Golf Club in Dade City, has a bit of a home-course advantage. He plays Copperhead often, including Sunday with 2000 tournament winner and Palm Harbor resident John Huston.
"For playing in an afternoon round, it's probably the easiest this course will ever play,'' Willis said.
"The wind was just enough to get your attention and make you concentrate a little better. The greens are probably softer than I've seen them in the past.''
Last year, Willis found himself in almost the same position. He was the first-round leader, only to fade in the final two rounds and fail to make the cut for Sunday's round.
"When you get out there in the heat of the moment, you have a tendency to change things up,'' Willis said. "That's what happened to me last year. I have to use last year as a learning experience and just try to par the first hole, then the second hole, then the third hole. And if I make a putt, great.''
If Casey plays like he did Thursday, he will be hard to catch. This is his fourth tournament in the United States this year, and he has not finished among the top 10. He has played well in Europe, including a win in Bahrain, and said he can feel his game coming around.
"I played some pretty good golf in the Middle East," he said. "And since being in the States, it's been very close to being good but just not quite there.''
When Casey did hit an errant shot Thursday, it didn't find trouble. He attributes some of that to the luck of the Irish on St. Patrick's Day. In order to keep that luck, he has a plan for today: "Maybe I'll wear green again."