Zimbabwean Nick Price has compiled some wonderful rounds in more than 20 years as a professional, including a course record 63 at Augusta National, but it is debateable this former Open and US PGA champion has ever produced as good a round of golf as he did in opening a three-shot lead in the first round of the WGC-American Express Championship at Valderrama.
In benign conditions, but on a course regarded as one of European golf’s toughest tests of golf, Price, 43, opened with a magnificent nine under par 63 that left him three shots ahead of his playing partner, Ireland’s Padraig Harrington, and four in front of Scotland’s Andrew Coltart and America’s Scott Hoch.
It also meant that he had come within one shot of matching Bernhard Langer’s Valderrama course record, set during the 1994 Volvo Masters, a record which most commentators believe might never be equalled far less bettered.
Price, who has not won in 22 previous starts this season or, for that matter, since the Million Dollar Challenge at Sun City at the end of 1998, turned the clock back with a performance that will reverberate around golfing circles for years.
The Zimbawean made his intentions clear right from the start, with birdies on five of his first seven holes but then he dropped a shot at the 8th. Sometimes, that reversal would have been damaging enough for a golfer to lose his impetus but not Price who proceeded to fire six further birdies on the back nine, dropping just one further shot at the 15th hole.
“That was a great round of golf,” he said. “Any time you make 11 birdies, you’ve got to be doing a lot of things right. Today, I hit the ball great, I holed a lot of putts in the 6 to 14 feet range. I guess you could say that I had a lot of fun out there.”
Price’s 63 dominated the proceedings during the first round at Valderrama but it didn’t cloud the fact that, in the absence of 13 leading Americans and one top Japanese, there was a still a great deal of wonderful golf being played.
Altogether, a total of 28 golfers in the select 55-man field beat Valderrama’s demanding par of 72 and another nine finished right on that mark.
Best of the rest, behind Price, came from his playing partner, Padraig Harrington, who returned a six under par 66 containing seven birdies, his sole blemish coming on his final hole.
“I’m very happy,” said the Irishman who has recorded two victories on this year’s European Tour, at the Brazil Rio de Janeiro Open and the Turespana Masters, and who might have won another had he not signed for a wrong score at the Benson & Hedges International Open at The De Vere Belfry.
“Obviously, the bogey on the last tainted it a bit but I’m not going to let that take away from what was a very good score.
“This week I’ve probably spent about 15 hours working on the range,” he added. “I was last to leave the range on Monday, Tuesday and Wednesday. My hands are still sore but the hard work has obviously work because I played an awful lot better than last week.”
Between them, Harrington and Price produced 18 birdies, posting a better-ball score of 58, and another man who found conditions to his liking was Scotland’s Andrew Coltart who fired six birdies while recording a five under par 67.
The Ryder Cup star went out in four under par 32 and back in one under par 35 before pronouncing himself surprised at his performance.
“That’s the first time I’ve ever broken par round here,” he said in his press conference, although, in actual fact, he was found to be wrong, having shot a 70 during the 1996 Volvo Masters.
“Coming here, I didn’t have two many expectations and maybe that helped me because I was nice and relaxed out there.
“I played pretty good tee to green and holed some nice putts too which makes a pleasant change.”
Tournament favourite, Tiger Woods, made a promising start to the defence of his title when he birdied three out of his first four holes and but he dropped shots at the 12th , the 13th and the 17th before securing a birdie on the last to be round in one under par 71.
Elsewhere, the race to win the Volvo Order of Merit looks still seems certain to go right to the wire with Thomas Bjorn returning a 70, Lee Westwood recording a 72 and Darren Clarke coming home in 74.
However, Colin Montgomerie’s dreams of heading the money list for an eighth successive season might have disappeared after finishing with a seven and a five for a disappointing 75. He needs to win here this week to have any chance of retaining his No. 1 status but, clearly, that is now a tall order after finishing the first round in a share of 47th place, 12 shots behind the leader.
Montgomerie still has a mathematical chance of fighting back into contention but the same cannot be said for South Africa’s Ernie Els, another money list contender, who was forced to retire from the tournament after nine holes suffering from a serious back problem.
Els, winner of this year’s Standard Life Loch Lomond tournament, aggravated an old injury when he helped a pensioner lift his luggage off a carousel at Orlando airport on Sunday night and it did not respond to the intensive treatment he received once he got to Spain.
“This was an important week for me so I ignored advice not to play and decided to give it a go,” he said. “But, very quickly, I realised I couldn’t swing it. I couldn’t release the club and there was no point in making it worse.
“It’s an old thing,” he added. “Now, I’m going to take the weekend off, get some treatment, and see if I’m ready to compete (in the Johnnie Walker Classic) in Bangkok. If not, I will withdraw from that as well. I don’t want to play if I can’t play well. That is the last thing I want to do because, in those circumstances, you lose confidence and don’t enjoy yourself.”1st Round Video Highlights