The first few years Charlie Wi competed in the Arnold Palmer Invitational Presented by MasterCard, he was a bit intimidated, and it had nothing to do with the presence of the host. It had everything to do with the host's challenging Championship Course.
He's not intimidated anymore. The 40-year-old Californian opened with a 6-under-par 66 Thursday and grabbed a share of the first-round lead with Jason Dufner here at the Bay Hill Club & Lodge in the 34th edition of Palmer's prestigious tournament.
"The way [Bay Hill] was set up, I just didn't feel like it fit my game. I didn't feel comfortable," recalled Wi, who is seeking his first PGA TOUR title. "I just thought it was too much of a bomber's golf course, and I just couldn't compete. Obviously, I like it better now."
Wi scored seven birdies, including a capper at the 18th, against one bogey in the early going Thursday, while Dufner, also seeking his first TOUR victory, eagled the par-5 16th after a 210- yard 4-iron to 20 feet to erase his lone bogey.
"The eagle on 16, nice way to finish the round," said Dufner, who turns 35 on Saturday, said after finishing the opening round with at least a share of the lead for the third time this year. "Pretty nice round again today. Hit a lot of fairways, which gives you an advantage here, being able to attack some of the hole locations from the short grass. So that was a pretty big key."
Nick Watney, who tied for fourth place here in 2009, shot a 68 for third place, while a large group three strokes behind includes six-time winner Tiger Woods and Orlando resident Justin Rose, the winner just two weeks ago at the WGC-Cadillac Championship. Also in that group was Anthony Kim, who aced the par-3 17th hole, his first on the PGA TOUR.
"I'm swinging the club well, hitting a lot of quality shots. So that's good. And my short game's pretty sharp," said Rose, whose closing 68 last year lifted him into a tie for third, his best showing at Bay Hill. "I have the ability to grind it out with the short game and play well. So a few strings in the bow right now, and it does boil down to making putts."
Defending champion Martin Laird opened with a respectable even-par 72.
Wi's round was impressive for more than just overcoming his worries about taming Bay Hill. There is also the matter of his disastrous final-round 78 at last week's Transitions Championship, where he suffered a 13 on the par-5 fifth hole.
A nine-time winner in international tournaments, Wi said he was mad for one hole and then got over it. He managed to joke about the ugly collection of shots â€“ he hit a tree three times in a row and watched his ball carom out of bounds â€“ with reporters after Thursday's performance.
"I didn't even think about it really. That was just a blip on the radar screen. Actually I figured I should have gone for some TOUR record so at least I could be remembered," he quipped.
Coming into this week, Wi had made just one cut in four appearances at Bay Hill, finishing tied for 24th last year. He has only broken 70 twice â€“ and both were 66s. So, all in all, Wi was not expecting much out of the day.
"Since Pebble Beach [where he finished second], I've been playing OK, making cuts but not really... I haven't had too many strong finishes, and I've never really done well here," Wi said. "If I had shot a couple under today before I teed off, I would have been very pleased so to shoot 66 is a pleasant surprise."