Changes in attitudes push three to top early at THE PLAYERS

Stan Badz/PGA TOUR
Ian Poulter said his mind can wander at times, but Thursday at THE PLAYERS he was dialed in.
May 10, 2012
Larry Dorman, PGATOUR.COM

PONTE VEDRA BEACH, Fla. -- Evidence of golf's charming caprice was on display all over TPC Sawgrass during Thursday's first round of THE PLAYERS Championship, particularly at the top of the leaderboard where fun, frolic and two rounds of 7-under 65 were had by Ian Poulter and Martin Laird and a carefree 66 was shot by Blake Adams.

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There were 27 rounds in the 60s, a first-round total exceeded just twice in the past decade. And with a forecast for high skies and breezy conditions likely to make the golf course progressively firm and fast, the fellas might as well have a little fun early.

Because it isn't likely to get any easier between now and Sunday.

And easy is just how the course was made to look by Laird and his flawless seven-birdie round, and Poulter with his eight-birdie, one-bogey round that included nine straight one-putt greens. Blake Adams made his eight-birdie, two-bogey 66 sound like a day at the beach.

And, this is where the caprice part comes into play: though none of the top three players saw their low round coming, all believe it resulted, at least in part, from a positive outlook prompted by a change in circumstances.

First consider Adams and his route to 66. The 36-year-old Georgian, whose best PGA TOUR finish is a second at the 2010 HP Byron Nelson Classic, found himself getting into a rut of perfectionism. After spending the almost half the season in search of the perfect shot, he decided to lighten it up this week.

"I've been working really, really hard since Jan. 1, and just have not seen a whole lot of results," said the 6-foot-3, 205-pound Adams. "Starting this week I told my swing coach, John Tillery, and my caddie, Barry Williams, and my wife, Beth, that I think I just haven't had like -- just been out having fun. I've been trying to hit perfect golf shots, going out there and just trying to be too, too, precise with every club and every putt, and just got away from having fun with it.

"That was my whole mindset was just go out there and have fun. I'm very, very blessed, very fortunate. I play golf for a living. I mean, how hard do I really have it, you know? So just enjoy life and just have fun."

Poulter, the garrulous Englishman whose last U.S. victory was the 2010 World Golf Championships-Accenture Match Play Championship, recently shed a large burden when the home he has been building in Orlando, for a very long time, was completed. He spent last week packing and unpacking boxes, and didn't hit a shot.

"But it was also a big week for me to try to finally get in this house," Poulter said. "The more I could get done of that, the more I could relax my brain to actually going out there and playing some good golf.

"It's no surprise to me to be fresh in the mind this week; to know that I'm finally in the house and I'm relaxed and the family are happy, and all of the hassle and stress is over, and I can just go out and play golf. And I have felt relaxed this week. Two years and nine months is abnormally long to build a house."

Adams interview after Round 1 of THE PLAYERS

Following his opening-round 66, Blake Adams reflects on his play in the 2012 PLAYERS Championship with John Maginnes from SiriusXM PGA TOUR Radio.

Refreshed, his mind free of extraneous clutter -- "I do fill my brain full of lots of funny things at times," as Poulter put it -- freed up his swing, which in turn resulted in birdies at all four par 5s, birdies at three of the four par 3s, almost holing a wedge at the par-4 fourth hole and birdieing the par-4 10th and 12th holes with a 7-footer and an 18-footer.

Laird's fresh outlook came last week at the Wells Fargo Championship at Charlotte, where he changed caddies, hiring longtime friend Shay Knight, after a four-and-a-half year run with Alan Bond. He also altered his attitude about putting and came into this week armed with a new driver and 3-wood from his equipment sponsor, TaylorMade.

Of the caddie change, Laird said, "It's definitely kept me a little more relaxed on the golf course," and also has changed his approach to putting. He had 24 putts in the round, which was his lowest at TPC Sawgrass by five strokes.

"I worked with Dave Stockton Jr.," Laird said, "and the whole thing they work with is trying not to care on your putts. I consciously have been doing that the last couple weeks, not trying to try too hard because I know I haven't putted well here before, just have a quick look, see what you think the line is and let it go. Don't study it too much and don't think about it too much."

There's a lesson there somewhere for perfectionists of all stripes, a variation of which helped three very different players arrive at the top of the leaderboard. Staying there is the next challenge. Just four first-round leaders in the past 29 years have gone wire-to-wire at TPC Sawgrass. Changing that will be hard.

Larry Dorman is a freelance columnist for PGATOUR.COM His views do not necessarily represent the views of the PGA TOUR.