JERSEY CITY, N.J. (AP) — Just being at Liberty National is evidence enough that Camilo Villegas is on the right track.
Five years ago, Villegas won the final two playoff events and finished second to Vijay Singh in the FedEx Cup. He won over $4 million that year, along with a $3 million bonus. It wasn't long before he reached a career-high No. 3 in the world ranking.
But it's been a swift slide for the 31-year-old Colombian, so swift that his exemption from his third career win (the 2010 Honda Classic) ran out about the time his game reached a nadir. Villegas, once a star attraction, couldn't even get through Q-school last year. He had to rely mainly on sponsor exemptions this year, and he did enough right to qualify for the FedEx Cup playoffs at No. 112.
"My game is coming back," he said Thursday after opening with a 6-under 65 at The Barclays, where two rain delays kept the first round from finishing. "I'm gaining confidence and I'm feeling better. I'm excited and it's a matter of taking it one at a time. The game of golf, it's a crazy game. It's great when we have the confidence. It's not so good when you lack confidence."
Two rain delays of six hours meant only the top half of the draw finished the round. Kevin Stadler was atop the leaderboard at 7-under 64, one shot clear of Villegas, Henrik Stenson and Ryan Palmer. Tiger Woods played bogey-free, though he stopped making putts after the second rain delay and had to settle for a 4-under 67.
It was a long day for everyone, and it figures to be another long one on Saturday when Villegas, Woods and others who got in 18 holes on Thursday are likely to face a marathon so the tournament can get caught up.
"Three breakfasts, three warm-ups, two lunches and a bunch of birdies, which is good," Villegas said describing his long day. More critical is his second round on Friday afternoon and Saturday morning.
Thursday was the fifth time this year that Villegas has opened with a 65 or better. The previous four times, he never cracked the top 40, and he likely will need to do slightly better than that if he wants to be among the top 100 in the FedEx Cup who advance to the second of four tournaments next week outside Boston.
And history is not on his side. Each time Villegas had 65 or better, he never shot better than 70 the next day. His average score is 72.5, dragged down by that 77 in the second round of the Honda Classic when he joined a dubious list of players who went from a first-round lead to missing the cut.
"It's a new day," Villegas said. "A bad round is a bad round. Doesn't matter if it's second round, third round, fourth round." It was an even better day for Stadler, despite teeing off just after breakfast and finishing right before dinner, an 11-hour round all made worth it by his 64. It was his lowest score on the PGA Tour since the first week of February.
Asked if it was difficult to stay mentally prepared, Stadler replied, "I'm never really mentally prepared. Same as usual. It was all good." Woods, the No. 1 player in the world and in this playoff series, came out of the first delay by missing a short birdie putt on the par-5 13th and then rolled in three straight birdies to get into the mix. He cooled slightly after the slightly longer second delay, and failed to make birdie on any of the par 5s in his round of 67.
"We're done," Woods said. "It was a long day, and tomorrow will be a short one. And then Saturday will be pretty much a marathon." Jason Day and Matt Kuchar shot 66. Day made two bogeys that kept a good round from getting away from him. His ball dropped over the rocks and into the water to the left of the fifth green, and he got up-and-down from there. On his closing hole, the par-4 ninth, his drive went deep into the bushes and forced him to take a penalty drop. He got onto the green and made another bogey.
The rain allowed for some low scoring at Liberty National, which hosted The Barclays in 2009 and produced a winning score of 9 under. The course also went through significant changes to soften some of the landing zones and green complexes. Plus, there is virtually no rough.
Nothing, however, allows for low scoring quite like soft conditions. Nearly half of those who finished their rounds shot in the 60s. That group might have included Rory McIlroy, except for a few loose swings. He had three double bogeys and still managed a 71. McIlroy blasted out of a bunker and over the 15th green. His approach found the water on No. 5. And his tee shot on the ninth took a wicked kick off the cart path, over the bushes and a fence and out-of-bounds.
"The rest of it was actually pretty good," he said. Stadler needed a good start. He hasn't had a top-10 since New Orleans in late April, and he started these playoffs at No. 87. "I've had a pretty lousy summer, but really started hitting the ball a lot better a couple of weeks ago and was looking forward to playing some golf again here recently," he said. "Finally got something out of it today."