KAPALUA, Hawaii (Reuters) - American Nick Watney benefited from a late stumble by compatriot Brandt Snedeker to snatch a one-shot lead in the Mercedes-Benz Championship first round on Thursday.
Making his debut in the winners-only event, Watney upstaged some of the biggest names in the game by firing a five-under-par 68 on the hilly Plantation Course at the Kapalua Resort.
The 26-year-old Californian piled up six birdies, his last with a 30-foot putt on the 17th to take the outright lead, against a lone bogey in blustery, wet conditions to take charge of the 2008 PGA Tour’s opening event.
“I putted very well and I kept it really simple,” Watney told reporters after ending the day a stroke in front of Swede Daniel Chopra.
”I just hit to a lot of the middle of the greens and tried to take what they gave me.
“It was a very steady day and I‘m very pleased but, at the same time, it’s the first day of the first tournament of the year, so we’ve got a long ways to go.”
Australian Aaron Baddeley birdied four of the last five holes for a 70, matching U.S. Open champion Angel Cabrera and American Jonathan Byrd in the tournament which brings together the title-holders from the previous PGA Tour season.
Snedeker, battling to shrug off a lingering bout of flu, dropped three shots in the last two holes for a 71 to finish level with 2003 Masters champion Mike Weir.
Canadian Stephen Ames, who struck the opening drive of the season, American left-hander Steve Flesch and South African Rory Sabbatini were a further stroke back after carding 72s.
Snedeker, the 2007 PGA Tour rookie of the year, had led by a stroke before running up a double-bogey six at the 17th after missing the fairway to the left off the tee with a cracked driver.
Forced to use his three-wood twice on the 663-yard par-five last, he signed off with a bogey after three-putting.
“It’s the first time it’s ever happened to me,” the 27-year-old from Tennessee said, referring to his damaged driver.
”I’ve had it for a long time and I guess it just probably said: ‘Mercy’. It’s been two years I’ve had it in my bag.
“I hit a good drive on 17, I ripped it up and thought it would be right in the middle of the fairway but it ended up in the middle of the hazard. It went only about 180 yards. I guess it’s just one of those things which happens.”
Snedeker had booked his place in the elite field of 31 at Kapalua with his maiden Tour victory at the Wyndham Championship in August.
Among the big names, world number three Jim Furyk and defending champion Vijay Singh opened with 74s.
Masters champion Zach Johnson battled to a 76 while fellow American Paul Goydos propped up the leaderboard with an ugly 81.
Writing by Mark Lamport-Stokes in Los Angeles; Editing by John O'Brien