PALM HARBOR — If there were brackets for the Transitions Championship, Jim Furyk would have been a No. 1 seed. His credentials include 15 years on the PGA Tour and 13 career wins, including a U.S. Open. He is 11th in the official world golf rankings. He is one of the most accurate players on tour, despite a swing no golf instructor would endorse. That is mandatory on the Copperhead course at Innisbrook.
And most telling, Furyk, 38, is rested after a draining 2008 season. All of that added up to a not-so-surprising opening-round 6-under 65 Thursday and a one-shot lead over Stephen Ames. It was Furyk's lowest round this season, and it was his sixth straight in the 60s dating to the Northern Trust Open in February.
"I played too much golf last year and too many events," said Furyk, who played 26 tournaments in 2008 and made 23 cuts. "Mentally, I was not in the right frame of mind. I wasn't excited about coming to the golf course. It was time to put (the clubs) away for a while. Now I'm back in a much better frame of mind."
Furyk went winless in 2008 for the first time in three years. That meant he did not get an invitation to the season-opening Mercedes-Benz Championship in Hawaii, which is for winners the previous year. Instead of starting his season in January, Furyk stayed in Ponte Vedra Beach and enjoyed the holidays with his family. He debuted in February at the Pebble Beach Pro-Am, a span of seven weeks between tournaments.
This is only his fifth tournament, his second in Florida. Furyk finished third at the WGC-CA Championship on Sunday in Miami.
"I was a little nervous about being rusty," Furyk said. "It had been a long time since I played. But I seemed to get back into it pretty quickly. I tried to play a lot of golf at home, but it's never the same as when the gun goes off."
When the gun went off on his Thursday morning round, Furyk was quick out of the gate. He birdied two of the first three holes on the back nine and made the turn with four birdies and five pars. His only hiccup was a bogey on the par-3 eighth hole. Furyk hit 11 of 13 fairways and 13 greens in regulation.
"The key today was that I putted very well," Furyk said.
Ames played much the same way. He hit 10 of 13 fairways and 14 of 18 greens in regulation. He made six birdies and one bogey, on the par-4 16th hole. Ames, who won the 2006 Players Championship, hadn't shot in the 60s since 63 at the Bob Hope Classic in January, a span of 10 rounds.
"I hit a lot of fairways and a lot of greens, and that's the key this week," Ames said. "You miss too many fairways out here and you're not going to make birdies.
"I'm not a bomber. I'm a guy who tends to keep it in play. This golf course very much has an emphasis on keeping it in the fairway."
There were 31 players within four shots of Furyk, including former champion Mark Calcavecchia and 17-year-old Japanese sensation Ryo Ishikawa, who both shot 2-under 69. Mathew Goggin, Jonathan Byrd and Kenny Perry, who sandwiched birdies on the tough 16th and 18th holes around his only bogey, were two back. Perry, 48, the highest-ranked player in the field at eighth in the world rankings, was the only one in the top five to play an afternoon round.
Defending champ Sean O'Hair did not get off to a good start. He shot 72 and was tied for 75th.
They will all have trouble catching Furyk if he continues his consistent play. He knows he is not the longest hitter on tour, ranking 169th in driving distance, but he also knows that doesn't matter this week.
"You pick and choose your spots," he said. "I don't go to a lot of golf courses where it's just a bomber's paradise and I'm at a severe disadvantage. I try to put myself in positions where I feel I have the best opportunities to win."
Rodney Page can reached at email@example.com, firstname.lastname@example.org or (727) 893-8810.