Nick Watney Leader Nick Watney among the first-timers making noise in Mercedes-Benz Championship's opening round

So much for the notion that veterans had the advantage Thursday in first-round play of the Mercedes-Benz Championship.

After 18 holes in the season-opening PGA Tour event featuring a 31-player, winners-only field, four of the 12 first-time participants found themselves among the top six. Nick Watney led the way, carding an opening round of 5-under-par 68 on the par-73 layout at the Plantation Course at Kapalua Resort in Hawaii.

First-timer Daniel Chopra was one stroke back of Watney at 69. Fellow tournament newcomers Angel Cabrera (tied for third at 3-under 70) and Brandt Snedeker (tied for sixth at 2-under 71) are also in contention.

The biggest challenge for a first-time player on the hilly 7,411-yard Plantation Course?

"I would have to say the greens, just learning the grain and knowing the grain," Watney said Thursday in his post-round press conference. "It's very strong. Some putts downwind, down grain are extremely fast, where into the grain it feels like you're putting on like Velcro almost."

However, Watney certainly handled himself well enough. The 26-year-old from Sacramento, Calif., didn't miss a fairway or a green on his back nine and highlighted his round by making a 30-foot putt for birdie on the par-4 17th hole.

"My caddie was really good today," said Watney, who won last year's Zurich Classic. "I think for me personally with the green, if I don't know what a putt is going to do, then I'll just play grain. So it worked out today."

In a round that featured wind and both sunshine and rain for most of the players, Watney got off to a solid start with three consecutive birdies on holes 3-5 before recording his only bogey at No. 7. However, he bounced back with birdies at Nos. 9, 15 and 17 to sit atop the first-round leaderboard for the fourth time in his young PGA Tour career.

Jonathan Byrd and Aaron Baddeley are tied with Cabrera for third at 70. Mike Weir joined Snedeker in sixth place at 71 and Stephen Ames, Steve Flesch and Rory Sabbatini are tied for eighth at 72.

Chopra carried over his strong finish to the 2007 campaign into the tournament. He recorded two top-five finishes in his last four Tour starts, including his victory in the Ginn Sur Mer Classic.

"I felt good about my game in the entire offseason," Chopra told reporters. "Today. I managed to — finally — it felt like I hit a few drives out there where I was rotating everything and the timing was good and I was back again."

With 10 players breaking par, it marked the third consecutive opening round of the Mercedes-Benz Championship where 12 or fewer players were able to shoot red numbers. There were no bogey-free rounds Thursday in the fairly difficult conditions.

That fact made Watney feel even better about his 68.

"I'm very happy with it," Watney said. "I'm very pleased, but at the same time it's the first day of the first tournament of the year, so we've got a long ways to go.

"It's definitely good for my confidence."

Three of the previous five first-round leaders or co-leaders in the Mercedes-Benz have gone on to win the tournament, including 2007 champion Vijay Singh. Stuart Appleby (2004) and Ernie Els (2003) also recorded wire-to-wire victories in that stretch.

The last player to win this tournament as a first-time participant was Sergio Garcia in 2002.

January 4, 2008

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