Originally created 12/14/01

Tiger's guests leading his tournament



THOUSAND OAKS, Calif. -- Their world rankings suggest Mark O'Meara and Fred Couples don't belong in the elite field at the Williams World Challenge. The 6-under 66s they posted Thursday proved otherwise.

The two guys Tiger Woods invited to his $4.1 million tournament turned in a stellar performance to share a two-stroke lead after the first round at Sherwood Country Club.

O'Meara, who has plunged to No. 153 in the world from not having won in three years, reached all the par 5s in two shots and got it to 7-under par until a bogey on the 17th dropped him into a tie for the lead.

Couples, who also hasn't won since 1998 and is ranked No. 100, had a 31 on the back nine and closed out his 66 by holing a 30-foot par putt up the ridge on the 18th hole.

Two guys in their 40s. The only two players in the 18-man field ranked lower than 32nd. Both with a 66.

"We played a scramble and no one watched us," was the explanation Couples offered. Actually, they did it the old-fashioned way - hit a lot of good shots and made some putts.

In the process, they showed up the tournament host.

Woods had few complaints, other that hitting a wedge over the green on the par-5 16th that led to a bogey. He still managed six birdies in a round of 68 that left him tied with Vijay Singh and Scott Verplank.

Woods looked brilliant at times, such as approach into No. 7 that stopped a foot from the hole, and mediocre at others. His two bogeys came when he flew the green.

He shaved the goatee, but that's no indication he was all business at his tournament. On the seventh hole, he tossed a divot at caddie Steve Williams when he wasn't looking. Williams pretended to chase him with a putter, then threw it to him from 20 yards away.

The tournament was for the top 16 players available in the world ranking, plus two "Tiger picks." Maybe this bodes well for the day Woods becomes a Ryder Cup captain.

"I ought to get a percentage," he said.

The tournament doesn't count toward official money or the world ranking, but it's important to both co-leaders.

O'Meara has taken stock of his career since becoming the oldest man, at 41, to win two majors in 1998 when he claimed the Masters and British Open. He contemplated a career in the TV booth with CBS Sports, but then decided to prove he still had some game left.

It is a work in progress.

There have been small signs, such as his record-tying 63 at the PGA Championship this year. Thursday was another one.

"The last year-and-a-half has been a learning process about what I've done and what I want to do," O'Meara said. "Tiger keeps pushing me. My wife told me I needed to get off my butt. I've won before when people have doubted me."

Couples thought about retirement this year when he wasn't getting the results he was getting. Putts stopped going in and he finished the year without a top 10 on the PGA Tour.

During the PGA Championship, he walked past Paul Azinger on the practice green and took a few strokes with his "belly putter," the one also used by Singh in which the end of the grip rests against the stomach.

"It's a better stroke for me," Couples said. "I don't think this is going to go away."

Of course, both of them have Woods to thank for their chance to win against a world-class field and pick up $1 million.

"It was nice of him to invite me," O'Meara said. "He probably wouldn't have gotten a Christmas present from me if he didn't invite me."

Their score was especially impressive given the positions of the flags, most of them cut above knolls on the greens. O'Meara said ever pin looked like a Sunday position, but he managed to give himself plenty of good looks at a birdie.

Singh played bogey-free and made all his birdies on the back nine. It was only fitting that he start with a good round since Singh, O'Meara and Couples are among the four players who failed to win on their home tour this year.

The other was Lee Westwood of England, who had a 71.

Five players failed to shoot par or better, including Colin Montgomier (73). Monty almost withdrew because of a bad back that didn't get any better while flying from California and the Skins Game to South Africa, and then back to California. When the week is over, he gets to fly home to England.

Tim Herron was summoned to the practice range Thursday morning in case Montgomerie withdrew. He took one look at the Scot's long, fluid swing and decided not to cancel his flight home to Phoenix.