Healthy start: McCarron moving in right direction at Hotel Fitness

FORT WAYNE, Ind. – There certainly are more conventional ways to trudge through the first three holes in even par.

After putting an opening bogey on his scorecard at the Hotel Fitness Championship, Scott McCarron found himself staring at a difficult up-and-down from a greenside bunker to avoid a similar result.

He holed it.

A par followed at Sycamore Hills’ par-5 12th – but only after a poor chip put McCarron in another bunker and he left himself a 25-foot save from the fringe.

“My caddie looks at me and says, ‘This is exciting!’ ” McCarron said. “This is only the third hole – it hasn’t even gotten exciting yet.”

Indeed, the 48-year-old veteran was just finding his rhythm. Five birdies and an eagle in a seven-hole stretch moved him up the leaderboard as he rounded the turn.

Then from a fairway bunker, McCarron watched his pitching wedge run up to the ninth green’s proper shelf to set up a closing birdie.

Yeah, McCarron still has some game. And shooting an 8-under 64 -- which gave him a one-shot lead after Round 1 -- sure beats walking behind one with a microphone.

“It’s been a long time since I played some good golf,” said McCarron, who moonlighted as a Golf Channel analyst while recovering from thumb surgery. “But I still know how to. At least I haven’t forgotten that part.”

It has been a while, though. Not only was Thursday’s round his lowest since the opening round of the 2011 McGladrey Classic, it came in four shots better than anything else McCarron has posted in this abbreviated season.

In fact, it was just the third time in 21 rounds this year that McCarron has broken 70. One of those, though, came during his last start at the Reno-Tahoe Open.

McCarron, a winner of three PGA TOUR crowns, is one of five medical exemptions in the Tour Finals field. A torn ligament in his left thumb ended his 2012 season after six starts, and he underwent surgery last October.

Even with a medical exemption for 2013, though, circumstances seemed to conspire against him.

With the PGA TOUR’s shift to a wraparound schedule, the 2013 season was cut short by a half-dozen events. And the ones that remained became that much tougher to get into.

Whereas McCarron typically might have parlayed the exemption into 15 starts, he got eight.

“It was a bad year to be on a medical,” he said. “I knew what was going to happen to me this year, but there was nothing I could do. I had to have the surgery. I couldn’t prolong it anymore.”

Perhaps because he knew starts would be scarce, McCarron also came back too soon. He missed cuts at the Humana Challenge in partnership with the Clinton Foundation and AT&T Pebble Beach National Pro-Am, then shut it down again for another two months.

“I should have waited probably another two months before I came back,” he said.

“We all know that we play too long with injuries and come back too early. I’ve done it now twice in my career – an elbow injury (in 2006) and this thumb injury. I played too long on both of them and came back too early. But we’re gamers, we want to compete.”

By way of comparison, he cited the timetable Washington Redskins quarterback Robert Griffin III is battling to be ready for the NFL’s opening day after suffering a torn ACL suffered in last year’s playoffs. “RG3 looks like he wants to come back and play football,” he said.

Even when McCarron was healthy enough to return to action, starts were hard to come by. That, he said, was one of the reasons he took up Golf Channel’s offer to join their broadcast team.

“It’s completely different than anything I’ve done,” said McCarron, who never has been shy in sharing his opinions.

“I got to be a walking announcer, got to be in the booth, learned the ins and outs. It’s a lot more difficult than people think, but it’s a good group of guys to work with. The guys at Golf Channel have been great to me.”

McCarron has agreed to take up the microphone again for the start of the 2013-14 PGA TOUR season, though he’d prefer that his Tour Finals play might force a change. If nothing else, the Finals will give him some consistency.

“Playing once a month is difficult,” he said, noting that he’s played back-to-back events just once this year.

That stretch might have been a sign that he’s turning the corner. Though he missed the cut by one at the RBC Canadian Open – his seventh straight missed cut – he played his last nine holes in 3 under. Then he played all four days at the Reno-Tahoe Open, struggling on the weekend after an opening +8 in the Modified Stableford scoring system.

Most importantly, he got through both events pain-free.

“I’d had a tough time kind of letting shots go because I kept waiting for the pain to happen,” he said. “Then the last couple of months have been pretty good. I haven’t had any pain, so I’m able to turn on it and let it go.”

Though McCarron still has 11 starts left on his medical exemption, he could trump that by locking up a full card in the Finals. Cards await the top 25 on the Finals money list who haven’t already earned promotion via the Tour’s regular season.

“With guys like myself who haven’t played in a while,” he said, “once we kind of get in the mix and get going again, it kind of feels normal when we start playing well.

“When I’m playing bad, I can never imagine playing good again. And when I’m playing good, I can never imagine playing bad. This is an amazing game.”