By Brian Allee-Walsh, Special to PGATOUR.COM
AVONDALE, La. -- One of the featured groups failed to take advantage of a vulnerable golf course Thursday morning in the opening round of the Zurich Classic of New Orleans.
Greeted by soft greens and a slight north wind, the golf gods seemed to be smiling down on two past champions - Bubba Watson (2011) and Nick Watney (2007) -- and defending champion Jason Dufner. But none came close to matching Ricky Barnes' course-record tying 8-under 64 at rain-soaked TPC Louisiana.
Watney led the threesome with a 3-under 69, one better than Dufner (70) and four better than Watson (73).
Watney got an early start to his 32nd birthday, waking up to darkness to work out the kinks before teeing off No. 10 at 8:30 a.m. ET.
"Waking up at 5 in the morning, I'll probably be pretty tame tonight," Watney told reporters after his round. "But yeah, it's always good to celebrate a birthday, and to shoot a decent round makes it even better.
"I'm happy with my round, so I'll go home and watch the boys have at it this afternoon."
Watney also planned to watch the first-round of the NFL Draft where his beloved San Francisco 49ers are slated to pick 31st as the runner-up to the Super Bowl XLVII champion Baltimore Ravens.
With 13 overall picks in hand, Watney suggested the 49ers might be ripe to maneuver up in the first round.
"The 49ers are really good," Watney said. "I don't think they have any major holes. But maybe a safety because we lost Dashon Goldston (to Tampa Bay in free agency). So that might be our weak spot."
Dufner fell short of his expectations Thursday but certainly didn't shoot himself out of the tournament, posting birdies on both par 5s on the front nine and a birdie on No. 16, a short 344-yard par 4. His lone bogey came on the par-3 fourth hole.
"We had a north wind today, which I think I've only played once before in my years here," Dufner said. "It was pretty score-able. But some holes we're used to playing downwind were into the wind today. So the course played longer and played really different than what I'm accustomed to here in New Orleans."
Watson slipped past reporters, signed autographs and posed for pictures with fans, then headed into the clubhouse to ponder his round and how to play himself into contention on Friday. He missed the cut last year in defense of his title.
"Eight under is some good golf," Watney said of Barnes' round. "I would take that any day."