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Rest gives Dade City's Garrett Willis early edge at PGA Tour's Transitions Championship

PALM HARBOR — After two dismal rounds at the Honda Classic two weeks ago, Garrett Willis just wanted to get back to Dade City and plop on his couch.

Willis made the cut in Palm Beach Gardens, but he shot 80-79 on the weekend and couldn't wait to put his clubs in the closet.

The week off has clearly helped.

Willis shot an opening-round 65 on Thursday at the PGA Tour's Transitions Championship to grab the lead by two shots over six golfers, including defending champion Retief Goosen, rookie sensation Rickie Fowler and last-second entry Jeff Maggert.

The round ties Willis' lowest of the season (first round at the Bob Hope Classic), and it is the first time this year he has been alone atop the leaderboard.

"I was looking forward to a week off prior to this tournament," said Willis, who attended East Tennessee State but moved to Dade City in 2001. "I knew there was going to be a lot of pulls on my time. It's a little bit of a long commute, but I was really prepared mentally coming into this week knowing I had a week off to prepare."

Willis, 36, finished 12th on the Nationwide Tour money list in 2009 to earn PGA Tour status. But his standing before the Transitions was not good enough to get him into the field. He is in the tournament only because of a sponsor's exemption.

Willis is a classic journeyman, bouncing on and off the tour since 1996. In fact, unlike most players, Willis doesn't have a sponsor on his hat. He wore a USF hat instead.

"I figured I might as well support the home team," said Willis, a member at Lake Jovita Golf and Country Club in Dade City.

Willis prepared for this week by playing 27 holes on Innisbrook's Copperhead Course with PGA veteran John Huston of Palm Harbor.

The local knowledge seemed to help. After bogey on the third hole, Willis birdied four of five holes from No. 8 to No. 12. Then he birdied the 14th and 16th holes to shoot 5-under 30 on the back nine.

"I really haven't capitalized on my play this year," Willis said. "I put myself in position a couple times and slipped back. I've been playing well; I'm just ready to put four rounds together."

Willis does have one PGA Tour victory, the 2001 Phoenix Open. He has played five times this year and made four cuts, but he has finished no higher than a tie for 26th, at the Bob Hope in January.

While Willis is a surprise leader, it is no surprise Goosen is lurking. He is the defending champion and won in 2003. He played a bogey-free round, with birdies on the first, fifth, 16th and 17th holes. At one point he had 10 straight pars.

"I played terribly last week," said Goosen, who was celebrating his grandmother's 100th birthday. "I wouldn't say I played great (Thursday), but I got it up and down probably six or seven times to save par. That saves quite a few shots.

"I see the shots well out here. It's narrow and I can see the shape out here a lot better than most courses."

Former champion Carl Pettersson (2005) shot 4-under 67 in the afternoon to get into contention. Jim Furyk, a 13-time winner and No. 9 player in the World Golf Ranking, is two shots back as well.

They are all chasing Willis, who has an afternoon tee time today. Until then, he'll be enjoying some home cooking.

"More or less as soon as I leave here," he said, "I'm going to lay on my couch."

Rest gives Dade City's Garrett Willis early edge at PGA Tour's Transitions Championship 03/18/10 [Last modified: Friday, March 19, 2010 3:22pm]
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