Crane dialed in at Players Championship

Ben Crane should have known what was coming when he rolled in a 30-foot birdie putt on the first hole of the day. He kept right on pouring them in until he had a 7-under 65 and a one-shot lead in The Players Championship.

While Ben Crane was hot with the putter during the opening round of the Players Championship on Thursday

PONTE VEDRA BEACH, Fla. — Ben Crane should have known what was coming when he rolled in a 30-foot birdie putt on the first hole of the day. He kept right on pouring them in until he had a 7-under 65 and a one-shot lead in The Players Championship.

Crane made four birdie putts longer than 20 feet, kept his ball on land throughout another wild opening round Thursday on the TPC Sawgrass and wound up atop a leaderboard devoid of the biggest stars.

Tiger Woods couldn’t make a putt outside four feet.

Phil Mickelson ran off three straight birdies early in his round, then couldn’t keep the ball in play.

Defending champion Sergio Garcia opened with a 71 and already was looking forward to going home to Spain.

Crane couldn’t relate.

“It’s one of those rounds that you just live for when you’re a golfer,” he said. “And I had one today at one of my favourite courses and tournaments of all time.”

He had a one-shot lead over John Mallinger, Alex Cejka and Richard S. Johnson of Sweden, with a large group at 67 that included Retief Goosen, David Toms, Camilo Villegas and Scott Verplank, who had two eagles — one of them from 150 yards out on the 15th fairway, another with a putt that seemed about that long on the par-5 second.

Calgary’s Stephen Ames is tied for 23rd at 2-under after shooting a 70, while Mike Weir, of Bright’s Grove, Ont., is tied for 58th with an even-par 72.

Woods opened his round with four straight birdie chances inside 12 feet and missed them all. He wound up with a 71, keeping alive his streak of never breaking 70 in the opening round at this elite event.

Mickelson hit iron off the 18th tee but it worked out beautifully with an approach to five feet for birdie to salvage a 73.

“Looked like it was going to be a great round,” Mickelson said. “And then it just kind of went away.”

That can happen on one of the most exciting courses in golf, where small mistakes can turn into big numbers.

Brian Gay made a small error by trying to reach the fourth green from the left rough, coming up short and into the water. He took a drop, dumped it in the water again, finally got on land and three-putted for a quintuple-bogey 9 on his way to an 80, one of five players who failed to break 80.

Or take the group of Steve Lowery, Daniel Chopra and Paul Goydos. They played the par-3 17th in a combined 18 shots, with four balls in the water — and Goydos made a par. Lowery put two in the drink and three-putted for an 8, while Chopra rinsed two and made 7.

But there were times that Sawgrass was forgiving.

Villegas was cruising along at 3 under early in his round when he punched a six-iron from under the trees to just short of the green, then chipped too hard and watched it roll off the green and into the water. He dropped on the edge of the putting surface and holed a 35-foot putt to walk off with a par.

“It’s funny how people talk, ‘Oh, this golf course is perfect for this guy or for that guy,’ and trust me,” Villegas said, “players don’t think that way. We just get a target and swing at it. I’ll be out there focusing on every target, every swing, every shot, and hopefully, keep it going.”

Crane got his day off to a slow start. His wife had the car, so he rode to the Stadium Course on the back of his caddie’s moped. Then, he was off to the races. He opened with consecutive birdies starting at No. 10, made the turn in 33, then ran off five birdies in a six-hole stretch along his back nine. The hole looked the same size, but it seemed like a magnet for his ball.

“How often . . . from 30 feet do you actually start it there and then the read is correct? And that happened a number of times today,” he said. “You just smile. You’re like, ‘Yeah, this is why I play golf right here.”’

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