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Camilo Villegas (63) is the North star at Torrey Pines.

Colombian leads by three shots after blistering the easier course at the Buick Invitational.

February 06, 2009|Chuck Culpepper

LA JOLLA — The Buick Invitational certainly could have lost its knack for star power starshine in the absence of You Know Who. After year upon year of Broadway names winning, its 2009 leaderboard could have crawled with anonymous, fine golfers known only to next of kin and feverish connoisseurs.

Instead, they started the thing Thursday and still a star shot up.

Camilo Villegas, the dashing 27-year-old Colombian rich in recent earnings and untold promise and enviable biceps, checked in with a nine-under-par 63 and a three-shot lead from the Torrey Pines North Course, by far the easier of the two courses utilized. By the time the sun took a hike and the afternoon rain pattered before a post-round deluge came in, the world's No. 11 player finished his eight-birdie, one-eagle, one-bogey round and spoke a form of golf poetry.

"Two chip-ins. . . . I drove it nicely. . . . Four under after three; that's obviously very motivating. . . . I made a mistake on 7, but that's OK. . . . I made a really tough putt there [14], one of those putts you don't expect to make, turning big-time from right to left, just gaining speed toward the hole. . . . About 30 feet maybe. . . . I took the pin out and just hit a beautiful chip that went in. . . . Didn't birdie the last one, but that's OK."

The "beautiful chip" meant No. 17, where Villegas chunked a seven-iron enough to flirt with water and nestle luckily in greenside grass, then no-putted anyway. Given the Buick hasn't produced a champion who never won a major since Peter Jacobsen in 1995, the future bets on Villegas could flow in even as he reminded, "I mean, I've played one round."

The one round helped the North Course hoard 13 of the top 15 scores. Those who played the 6,874-yard lamb averaged 71.731 strokes, while those who wrangled with the 7,568-yard South Course, the ornery beast used for the 2008 U.S. Open, took 75.372.

As such, it seemed prudent when playing the North to hog some birdies before facing the second round with the pain -- and potentially appalling weather -- on the South.

Davis Love III thought so, considering he shot 66 for a share of second place and said, "I think the average is always lower on the North, so you've got to take advantage of it when you get out there."

Love's playing partner Aaron Baddeley agreed after matching Love's 66, saying, "I got off to a good start, which is sort of nice on the North Course because you sort of feel like you should shoot a good score."

He sort of did and joined Love, who according to the careful study of fossils won this event in the Mesozoic Era of 1996. They sat two shots ahead of Stuart Appleby, Robert Garrigus and Jeff Overton, all of whom also played the North Course.

Reading the leaderboard with a bit of inversion, then, you could find Scott Sterling and Matthew Goggin among nine humans at 69 but with 69s that shone more brightly given they wrung them from the South. Just behind them at 70 lurked another South-dweller, the 1993, 2000 and 2001 titlist Phil Mickelson, giddy over his new and just-approved Callaway FT-9 driver.

"I loved it," Mickelson said.

Add his putter to the lovefest, for the world's No. 4 player said, "I'm starting to really understand the breaks now that I've played here a number of times since the redesign" -- in 2001 -- "and I took a lot of notes at the U.S. Open, so I'm starting to read them well."

Reading the pine needles between the North and the South might seem normal -- does Padraig Harrington's 71 on the North tell anything? -- but Villegas doesn't subscribe to all that. He's always up by 6 a.m. even during time off and his grand plans found their essence when he began his first weekend round with Tiger Woods in 2007 by saying, "Tiger, I hope it's the first of many." These days, the Medellin native and University of Florida product sees not North or South but opportunity.

"Well, I heard some of the guys this morning just complaining about, 'Oh, I'm here, there, tomorrow there, I don't know what's going to happen with the weather.' You know what, you've got to play both courses. The North Course is not playing that easy. I mean, the greens are bumpy . . . "

Then again, confidence woes wouldn't perplex somebody who won twice in four weeks last September, even if last week he did miss the cut and get stabbed with cactus needles from his caddie's towel in Arizona. With stardom clearly nigh, Villegas eyes the two divergent courses and says, "Who knows, man, just go out there and hit some shots."

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chuck.culpepper@yahoo.com

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