Nick Watney acknowledges the crowd with a tip of his cap after sinking a birdie… (Bret Hartman / Associated…)
Keegan Bradley and Webb Simpson ensured that the belly putting issue that has dominated the golf world this week would not end with the start of the World Challenge in Thousand Oaks.
As conventional putter Nick Watney fired a five-under-par 67 to take the tournament's first-round lead Thursday, Bradley and Simpson — two of the players using the controversial putting method — also were among the leaders.
Bradley shot a 69 at the par-72 Sherwood Country Club to trail by two shots, as did Jim Furyk and Graeme McDowell, winners of the World Challenge in 2009 and 2010, respectively. Simpson, this year's U.S. Open champion, was another stroke back after shooting 70.
The 18-player World Challenge is held to benefit Tiger Woods' charities, and Woods — a five-time winner of the tournament, including last year — also opened with a 70, as did Bo Van Pelt.
Watney played a bogey-free round and scored four of his five birdies on the back nine, including on the par-four 18th, where he hit his approach shot to within four feet of the cup.
"I figured since Tiger is nice enough to invite me, I might as well prepare and try to play well," Watney said of the World Challenge, which pays $1 million to the winner.
"I'm very pleased to be at five under," Watney said. "I'm definitely happy to be on top."
But it was the belly putter matter that remained, well, front and center for the pros after the first round.
The U.S. Golf Assn. and its overseas counterpart, the Royal & Ancient, on Wednesday announced plans to ban belly putting — that is, using a long putter anchored against the stomach or some other part of the body — starting in 2016.
Bradley, winner of the 2011 PGA Championship, acknowledged that the decision gave him more motivation as he teed off Thursday.
"I've been catching such flak on Twitter and these other places, it would be good to kind of quiet them a little bit," Bradley said. "I had a guy yesterday telling me to send my application in to Burger King for 2016."
Bradley said he respects the golf officials' effort to protect the game's integrity, but he also said, "I feel like the USGA has really put an X on our back and really shined a light on us, and I don't know if that's exactly fair."
On a cloudy yet mostly dry day, Bradley's only bogey came on the 18th hole when his tee shot landed next to a tree root, forcing him to take three shots to reach the green.
As for the tournament host, Woods said, "I didn't hit the ball very good today and made a few good par puts to keep the round going. I kept myself in the tournament — could have easily shot myself out."
One of those moments came at the par-three 15th when Woods' tee shot sailed over the green, forcing a tough downhill chip that still left him 20 feet from the cup. But he sank the putt.