Charles Howell III tees off on the 12th hole during the first round of the Children's Miracle Network Hospitals Classic golf tournament in Lake Buena Vista, Fla., Thursday, Nov. 8, 2012. (AP Photo/Reinhold Matay) (Credit: AP)
LAKE BUENA VISTA, Fla. (AP) — Camilo Villegas felt like a lucky man, and it had nothing to do with his best round in nine months.
At some point this year, when Villegas was missing cuts or playing too early on the weekends and sliding farther down the PGA Tour money list, he realized he was far too miserable for someone who gets to play golf for a living. No matter how much he worked, it was hard to get anything out of practice without a good attitude.
“Sometimes you just wake up in the morning and you look at yourself in the mirror and you said, ‘You know what? Life is good and why am I miserable?’ Because that’s what happens when you’re playing bad,” Villegas said Thursday.
He chose to make a change, and now can only hope it’s not too late to save his job.
Villegas ran off three straight birdies late in his round on the easier Palm course at Disney for a 7-under 65, leaving him one shot behind Charlie Wi after the opening round of the Children’s Miracle Network Hospitals Classic.
It was his lowest round to par since he started the season with a 9-under 63 at the Humana Challenge, back when Villegas had high hopes about a new season.
The Colombian with flair was considered a rising star in 2008 when he won consecutive FedEx Cup playoff events — the BMW Championship at Bellerive and the Tour Championship — to finish the season with more than $4.4 million and rise to No. 7 in the world.
He hasn’t won since then.
His world ranking has plunged all the way to No. 214. He wasn’t in any of the majors this year. And he was at No. 150 on the PGA Tour money list going into Disney, the final tournament of the year. Only the top 125 keep their full cards, and if Villegas were to slip out of the top 150, he would have to go to the second stage of Q-school.
Even that prospect no longer bothers him.
“Trust me, people remind you, ‘Hey, you’re 150th on the money list.’ And I’m kind of like, ‘Life is good. Just keep going,’” Villegas said. “If you’re good at that game, you are out you will be back in. I mean, who knows? Just take it one shot at a time.”
Villegas should have a better indication where he stands after Friday, when he moves to the Magnolia Course, which is about 500 yards longer than the Palm and played about 1.7 shots harder in the opening round.
It was not the least bit surprising that the top 12 scores came from the Palm Course. The best score from Magnolia, where the final two rounds will be played, was a 68. Henrik Stenson and Charles Howell III were among those who got the best of the Mag.
Tommy Gainey is now 17 under in his last two rounds. After closing with a 60 to win at Sea Island three weeks ago, he opened with a 65 at the Palm.
Wi is no stranger to his position atop the leaderboard. Thursday was the eighth time in his career that he had at least a share of the opening-round lead, and the third time this year. The other two tournaments were Pebble Beach and Bay Hill, won by Phil Mickelson and Tiger Woods. He won’t have to worry about either of them this week.
For as much emphasis as there is on the bottom of the money list, Wi was in the middle. He is 45th on the money list. He usually plays some of the Fall Series, but spent three weeks in Asia.
What motivates the 40-year-old is winning, which he hasn’t managed to do in his previous 183 starts on the PGA Tour. Wi holed a 15-foot eagle putt on No. 7, chipped in from just off the ninth green and wound up with a 64.
Winning is the goal, as always. It would be particularly timely at Disney, not only as the last event of the year but it might be enough for Wi to get into the top 30 on the money list and earn a trip to Augusta National for the first time. And yes, he’s aware of that.
“Top 30 is definitely a goal,” Wi said. “I’m not just showing up to play. You’ve got to have goals. I at least want to give myself a chance.”
Gainey doesn’t have that opportunity. He was so far down the money list when he won at Sea Island that even a win at Disney wouldn’t be enough for him to get into the Masters. That didn’t stop him from opening with another solid round.
“My goal is just to win, anyway,” he said. “The way I’m playing right now, keep hitting the golf shots and keep hitting it in the fairways, and with the way I’m rolling this putter, it’s going to be good by Sunday afternoon.”
Brian Harman, Scott Stallings and Russell Knox, the rookie from Scotland who is outside the top 150, were at 66. Kevin Chappell, at No. 123 on the money list, overcame an early bogey and was in the group at 67.
“I feel like if you give me enough opportunities, which I’ve had, I’ve got to play well at least one week,” Chappell said. “If it’s the last week of the year, that’s great.”
The first two days of Disney are a pro-am, and it’s common for some players to ask to be paired with friends — Mike Weir and Dean Wilson, Harris English and Harman. A year ago, the tour put Luke Donald and Webb Simpson in the same group as they battled for the money title.
This year is a little different.
Rod Pampling is at No. 124 on the money list. He was paired with Billy Mayfair, who is at No. 125. Right behind them were Gary Christian and Alexandre Rocha, who are at No. 127 and No. 128 and right in the mix to keep their jobs.
Pampling opened with a 70 and Mayfair a 72. Christian and Rocha each had a 71.
“I was a bit surprised by that,” Pampling said, grinning. “We’re all grinding. … You don’t need the guys right behind you and next to you. But that’s OK. Billy is easy to play with. And it’s not going to change anything, anyway.”