MEMPHIS, Tenn. – There was a time late last year that back problems had Ben Crane doubting that he would play golf this season. Crane snuck into last year’s FedExCup Playoffs at No. 125 in the standings, but the pain forced him to withdraw from The Barclays after a first-round 67.
Crane’s golf swing was the culprit, so he’s been making swing changes in an attempt to fix the problem. His back has been good, but his form has not. He is 150th in the FedExCup standings with just one top-25 in 16 starts this season.
“To be playing has been a blessing, but I haven’t played well at all,” Crane said. “I’m excited to be healthy and start finding my game. It’s really encouraging.”
He shot 63 on Thursday – his low round of the season – at the FedEx St. Jude Classic to take the lead when play was suspended due to darkness. Play was delayed by more than three hours because of a storm earlier in the day.
“Being the first group off (in the afternoon) was nice because we got great weather,” Crane said. “And finishing today allows us to start 40 minutes later tomorrow, so we’ll get some extra sleep and maybe be able to watch some NBA Finals tonight.”
Thursday leaderboard @fesjcmemphis 1. B. Crane -7 (F) T2. P. Malnati -5 (F) T2. B. Horschel -5 (16) Round 1 resumes at 7 a.m. local time.— PGA TOUR (@PGATOUR) June 6, 2014
MISSION ACCOMPLISHED: Phil Mickelson accomplished two goals in the first round of his final event before the U.S. Open: he was able to finish strongly and better visualize his shots. He shot a fairly steady 67 in the first round of the FedEx St. Jude Classic. A T2 at this event last year helped him contend at last year’s U.S. Open, where he held the lead over the final nine holes before finishing T2.
He made five birdies and two bogeys Thursday at TPC Southwind.
"I'm trying to take a little more time behind the shot, doing a better job visualizing the shot," he said. "The thing that's really helped me, I've been more creative, curving the ball more with the irons to try to get it close to the hole rather than just hitting a stock shot without curvature."
Some help from his caddie, Jim Mackay, helped Mickelson finish strong. He asked for Mackay's help in reading a putt on the third hole, his 12th of the day, and asked for Mackay's aid on virtually every putt for the remainder of the round.
"It's kind of a win-lose for him," Mickelson joked. "He did his job great but that means now I'm going to have him work a little bit harder."
MOTHER KNOWS BEST: Donna Malnati noticed a change in her son, Peter, when she caddied for him at a Web.com Tour event a couple weeks ago.
" 'I've never seen you like this before. You're really negative, you're down,' " Peter recalled his mother saying. "Coming from my mom, that was a kick in my butt."
He needed that motivation. Malnati shot 5-under 65 in the first round of the FedEx St. Jude Classic to take the lead after the morning wave.
It’s been a tough rookie season for Malnati. He’s made just three of 11 cuts this season, including just one of his past eight, and is 172nd in the FedExCup. He’s tried to keep things in proper perspective, though.
“Twelve months ago, I was playing a mini-tour event,” said Malnati, who turns 27 on June 13. It’s been a rapid rise through pro golf’s ranks in the past year. He started 2013 with no Web.com Tour status, but was able to parlay starts on that circuit into a PGA TOUR card.
He used Thursday’s three-and-a-half-hour rain delay to clear his head, then returned to birdie two of his final three holes.
“It had been some negative thoughts rolling around in my head for most of the year, honestly,” he said. “Just in the last couple of weeks I’ve kind of gotten it turned around. (During the delay), I kept telling my wife I was going to wander around in (the clubhouse). I was actually thinking good thoughts.”
BACK AT IT: Retief Goosen resumed his success at TPC Southwind. He’s finished in the top 30 in four of his five starts at the course, including a T3 in his last start here, in 2011. He opened with 4-under 66 on Thursday.
He has made 17 starts this year and posted two top-10s. He fulfilled a major medical extension, thus keeping status for the remainder of the season, with his T7 at the Shell Houston Open. Goosen has been hampered by back injuries for several years.
"I wish I was 20 years younger but that is never going to happen," Goosen, 45, said. "My back is feeling probably the best now it has felt for probably six, seven years."
The most recent of Goosen's seven PGA TOUR victories came at the 2009 Valspar Championship. This is the last year he is exempt for the U.S. Open by virtue of his victory in that event in 2004. He also won the 2001 U.S. Open. Goosen looked likely to win a third U.S. Open at Pinehurst No. 2 in 2005, taking a three-shot lead into the final round before shooting 81. He will return to Pinehurst next week, potentially after a strong showing here.
TOP TWEETS OF THE DAY
The past 10 years, there have been 2,620 water balls at TPC Sawgrass. At TPC Southwind, there have been 3,951. pic.twitter.com/6HDSeS7ebR— PGA TOUR (@PGATOUR) June 5, 2014
Really happy to make 8 birdies, and donate to @StJude!! Looking to add a few more to the total tomorrow!!— Troy Merritt (@TROYMERRITT_PGA) June 5, 2014
There was no wind in the storm that went thru! pic.twitter.com/t8RFjBd7FY— William McGirt (@WilliamMcGirt) June 5, 2014
@WestwoodLee come in the gym and get a quick lift in then💪— Rickie Fowler (@RickieFowlerPGA) June 5, 2014
I don't think today's will be the last delay here this week at the St. Jude . Summer in Memphis !— Lee Westwood (@WestwoodLee) June 5, 2014
OPEN AND SHUT: It’s already been a big week for Hudson Swafford, who was medalist in Monday’s U.S. Open qualifier near Memphis. He’s off to a good start at the FedEx St. Jude Classic, shooting a first-round 67.
“I’m starting to have fun again instead of beating myself in the ground,” Swafford said.
Swafford will play in his second U.S. Open next week. He was an amateur when he missed the cut in 2010 at Pebble Beach. Swafford was college teammates with PGA TOUR winners Russell Henley and Harris English. Swafford started working with English’s swing instructor, Mike Taylor, in April.
“The hard work has been starting to pay off,” Swafford said.
Swafford is 153rd in the FedExCup after making just six cuts in 17 starts this season. His lone top-10 was a T8 at the Sony Open in Hawaii.
He arrived in Memphis having made just one of his previous six cuts. He shot 69-64 in Monday’s U.S. Open qualifying to beat J.B. Holmes, winner of year’s Wells Fargo Championship, by one shot.
CALL OF THE DAY: Bill Rosinksi calls Troy Merritt's second shot to inside 4 feet on No. 17 at TPC Southwind. PGA TOUR Radio's live play-by-play continues Friday at noon ET.
ODDS AND ENDS
-- When Freddie Jacobson withdrew from U.S. Open sectional qualifying Monday, it allowed amateur Landon Michelson to get into the qualifier. Michelson made headlines when he was disqualified for signing an incorrect scorecard, costing himself to play off for a spot in the U.S. Open. Michelson shot 71-71, which would’ve been good enough to get in a playoff with Aron Price for the final U.S. Open berth, but was disqualified after signing for 71-70. Jacobson’s last opportunity to get to Pinehurst is to move in the top 60 in the Official World Golf Ranking at week’s end. Jacobson, No. 79 in the Official World Golf Ranking, is off to a good start, shooting 67 on Thursday.
-- Brooks Koepka qualified for the U.S. Open via a sectional qualifier in England. He was able to make an additional start in the United States before playing his national championship. Koepka earned special temporary membership on the PGA TOUR earlier this season. He got into the FedEx St. Jude Classic because of that status, and opened with 3-under 67.
-- Stuart Appleby used a 7-iron to make a hole-in-one on the par-3 eighth hole.
The Takeaway: Rain, Lefty and birdies for the kids
THURSDAY STAT LEADERS
Category Leader Stat Driving distance Dustin Johnson
324.5 yards Driving accuracy G. Fdez-Castano, R. Knox, M. Laird 11 of 14 (78.6 percent) Greens in regulation Martin Laird 15 of 18 (83.3 percent) Strokes gained-putting Troy Merritt 4.728 Most birdies Troy Merritt 8
Round 1 highlights from the FedEx St. Jude Classic