Jan
19
2012
Tidbits From Thursday at the Humana Challenge
By Stephanie Wei under PGA Tour

Camilo put a belly putter in play...I know, I know -- what belly?! /ba-dum-ching

Some notes and highlights from the first round of the Bob Hope Classic the Humana Challenge…

 

*Camilo Villegas, who found his form at the end of 2011 (terrible year until the last “regular season” event at Wyndham) is continuing right where he left off, firing a bogey-free, nine-under 63 at Nicklaus Private to take a share of the first-round lead with David Toms, who played at La Quinta CC. He had the guys at TaylorMade make him a new belly putter this week, a Ghost Manta.

 

When I was loitering working hard chatting up the TM guys at the range on Wednesday, Camilo’s caddie, Brendan Little, walked by and a highly-placed TM VP asked him how things were going. Little said Camilo liked the way his putter was rolling.

Apparently he felt the same way during competition, too.

“Last year wasn’t the best one, but it did finish a lot better than the way it started,” Villegas said of a season where he only made 14 of 25 cuts, but ended strong, with four top-tens. “I went back to Colombia and had a great four weeks with family and friends, with not much golf. Then I came back to Florida, and practised for just four or five days. “So it’s one of those things where you feel you’re a little rusty but, at the same time, you’re mentally fresh. It’s a funny game and sometimes being mentally fresh is more important.”

*I forgot what a pain in the butt it is to find groups out here in the desert. I basically walked the entire back nine, starting on No. 10 at Palmer Private, and didn’t catch up with the group I was looking for — Danny Lee and Jason Kokrak — until the 16th.

Good to see Bobby B. back on DJ's bag

*Good news is I ran into Dustin Johnson and Charles Howell III’s group. Dustin, making his first start since knee surgery, appeared to be striking the ball well, but he burned some edges, made some loose swings that got him in trouble.

Even better news: His knee isn’t bothering him. He’s clearly a little rusty and a little tired — but he said it wasn’t from walking 18 holes for the first time since the Presidents Cup last November, per se.

“I was tired before I teed off, so yeah, I’m tired because I didn’t sleep well last night for some reason, so I’m a little tired, a little rusty, a little pissed off,” he told me and another reporter after shooting even par at Palmer Private. “(Knee) feels good. It didn’t bother me at all today. I’m tired, but it has nothing to do with my knee, but I’m going to go home and rest.

“I’m playing really well. I didn’t make any putts at all. I hit the ball really well. Just two really poor shots on Nos. 9 and 14, and then a four-putt on 17 from about 10 feet.”

Ouch, I’d be a little irked, too. DJ’s not worried about coming back too soon from surgery, explaining he didn’t want to go into Torey Pines without a warm-up.

“One of my reasons for playing this week was that I didn’t want to go into San Diego as my first event,” he said. “I like the golf course and it’s not really a course you want to be rusty at.”

The world’s No. 8 emphasized how positive he feels about his game right now. “I’m happy I decided to play,” said DJ. “I’m playing really good golf right now. It’s the best I’ve been hitting it in a long time. I gotta figure out how to get it in the hole.

“I got tired and made some mental mistakes coming down the stretch. It had a little to do with being rusty and getting frustrated when you hit it close all day and don’t see the ball going in the hole. I was hitting good putts, I burned the edge all day long, but nothing went in — it kinda wears on you a little bit.”

 

*We’re not in Georgia anymore…a bit of a funny story here. I ran into rookie Harris English (one of the nicest guys out here and the real deal) at the PGA West driving range after he shot a three-under 69 at La Quinta. He was telling me and GC’s Kay Cockerill that he’d just gotten pulled over at the roundabout just before you enter PGA West on his way over from La Quinta. You see, in Georgia you can talk on your cell phone without using a hands-free headset.

English tweeted:

Well, not in California — but Harris wasn’t aware. He told the officer he didn’t know and wasn’t from the area. The cop quickly realized he was a pro playing in the event and asked Harris how he played. Then let him go on, saying he didn’t want to ruin his week.

Highlight of the day...chatting with Dr. J.

*Former pro basketball great and Hall-of-Famer Julius Erving, aka “Dr. J.,” is one of the bigger celebs playing this week. To me, he might be the biggest. I grew up a huge NBA fan, and though Dr. J had retired by that time, he was still frequently referenced and obviously a complete legend (I know I throw that word around a lot, but most of the time I’m being facetious — when it comes to Dr. J, he is a real, living legend). His partner on Thursday at the Palmer Private was Matt Kuchar. I was a little nervous at first, but Dr. J couldn’t be nicer. When another reporter asked if he was in awe of how the pros can focus on their games while still engaging their amateur partners, Dr. J’s response? He was half-joking, but this is classic:

“When did you see them engaging? These guys are walking out here in a zone. They’re playing their game. Some of these guys if you get to know them a little bit, then they’re pretty cool, but golfers have a reputation of not really engaging and concentrating while playing their game.

“Maybe with the limited amount of celebrities here this year, you’ll get a little more engaging because there aren’t enough celebrities to go around.

“Yesterday with Matt (Kuchar), we kind of had fun. Today it was all business. He was cool, though. Jerry (Kelly, the other pro in the foursome) is very personable. After a while, they go to their tee, we go to our tee and I’ll meet you on the green. When we make putts, we exchange celebratory, congratulatory words, but it’s not the same as playing with your best buddies at home. We don’t really laugh when they hit a tree.”

Dr. J started playing golf in the late ’80s when he was already in his 30s. He’s a 15-handicap, but thinks he should get a few more strokes out there for the event. When he’s home in Atlanta, he plays about twice a week. “Which isn’t enough,” said Dr. J. “Twice a week is fun, but not enough.”

He has a circle of about six buddies he plays with. Naturally, they’ll have a little match going with some money, but it’s about $5 per hole.

“We have standing bets,” he said. “It’s usually like $5 per hole, press when you’re down…nothing that’s going to make anyone rich or upset at your friend if you’re gambling too much.”

That wouldn’t be an indirect reference to, say, Michael Jordan, right? MJ is known to play for the big bucks…but when he loses, he doesn’t always pay up.

After he finished speaking to us, he was approached by other members of the media, so I kind of awkwardly walked away. On his way to the TV interview area, he walked by me and put his arm around my shoulders and said “thanks” or something like that. I’m never washing this shirt again.

Kokrak led the NWT in driving distance in 2011, averaging 318 yards off the tee

*Oh, by the way, I finally got to see Jason Kokrak bomb a drive on the 18th. He launched it about 310 yards. THAT’S ALL YOU GOT? Just kidding. It was nice and smooth, plus the wind was hurting a little. He was playing with Danny Lee, who also gets it out there — he was only 10 yards behind the 6’4″ rookie from Ohio.

What’s more, Kokrak knocked his second shot on the par-5 to about 11 feet. He rolled in the putt for eagle to shoot four-under. Not a bad start. Both Kokrak and Lee hit the ball beautifully (from the three or four holes I caught), but burned a lot of edges. Maybe they’ll drop tomorrow.

One last thought: I really like Danny’s swing (Jason’s is pretty sweet, too, obviously) — not sure about the glittery shirt he was wearing today, but we’ll let that slide. I had a good chat with him in Honolulu — some of which I posted and the rest of which I thought I’d save for when he was playing well…

(Top: AP Photo/Ben Margot)