Singh one off lead at Crowne Plaza

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FORT WORTH, Texas — Vijay Singh stopped playing at the Colonial Country Club when Annika Sorenstam showed up in 2003. He’s finally back — and among the leaders.

Singh shot a 6-under 64 on Thursday, leaving him a stroke behind Woody Austin, Tim Clark and Steve Stricker after the first round of the Crowne Plaza Invitational.

“This is a good way to start a tournament,” Singh said.

Singh played the event all but once from 1996-2002. He was scheduled to return in ‘03, then withdrew after making comments critical of the decision to allow a woman into the field. The gallery mocked his absence that week (his name on the side of chicken hats, T-shirts that read, “Singh a different tune, Vijay”), but folks seemed to have forgiven and forgotten on Thursday.

He heard cheers when he birdied five straight holes in the middle of his round and people groaned along with him when he hit the flagstick on his 15th hole. The good vibe likely was aided by his pairing with Kenny Perry, a two-time champion, and Brian Gay, who was born in Fort Worth and considers this his favorite course.

Singh described the support from the gallery as “no more than I had last week.”

“I haven’t been playing well so they’ve been very quiet,” he said, laughing. “Maybe they’re going to start making noise here soon.”

Singh and Perry walked off their final green leading the field. It didn’t last, though, because Austin came in at 63 soon after, then Clark followed. All left for lunch expecting more low scores to come in because of the light winds and soft greens, but Stricker was the only player from the afternoon groups to join them.

“If the wind blows, that is what is going to dictate the scoring here,” Stricker said. “But if it continues to be soft, I think the scoring is going to continue to be good.”

Rory Sabbatini shot a 71 to open his bid to sweep the Dallas and Forth Worth events, something only done by Ben Hogan in 1946. Sabbatini is the 2007 champion of this event and the most recent winner because ‘08 champ Phil Mickelson is on indefinite leave to help his wife, Amy, who recently was diagnosed with breast cancer.

Paul Casey, playing his first tournament since moving up to No. 3 in the world rankings, opened with a 66. He won the BMW PGA Championship on Sunday at Wentworth in England for his third victory of the season.

Ian Baker-Finch, celebrating the 20-year anniversary of his Colonial victory, shot a 68 in his second competitive start in 12 years. The 48-year-old Australian, a television commentator for the last decade, hadn’t played tournament golf in eight years since shooting 74-77 at Colonial to miss the cut.

Singh opened slowly, mixing one birdie with five pars. Then came a run of five straight birdies.

“I thought, ‘Man, he’s going to shoot 59,’ ” Perry said.

Singh narrowly missed several more birdie putts, often settling for tap-in pars. That includes the 15th, which might’ve been a tap-in birdie the way it was coming in.

Perry tied him at 6 under with a birdie on their 17th hole, but Singh followed with a birdie putt from the fringe to reach 7 under. Then came his lone poor hole, the finale. Singh put his drive in a bunker, then his approach into a pond. After making his bogey putt, he flipped his replacement ball into the pond, too.

It was still his lowest round on the PGA Tour this year, and the fifth time in six tries that he’s been in the 60s after doing so only twice in his first 28 rounds.

“I’m pretty pleased with what I did,” Singh said.

Singh has made the cut in five of his six tries at the course known as “Hogan’s Alley,” finishing 11th twice and 12th in his most recent appearance. He’s blamed his long absence on conflicts with his European tour schedule.

“I like the golf course,” he said. “The redo is really good. ... The layout is one of the best.”

Perry loves everything about this place. The Kentucky native proudly calls it “my home course” because of how comfortable he feels here.

But Perry went out with a different game plan Thursday. He wasn’t as aggressive as usual to avoid some of the pitfalls added since last year’s tournament. The strategy paid off as he didn’t make a single bogey.

“I usually hit driver everywhere, but now they put some strategic bunkering out there and I kind of had to scale back a little bit,” he said.

Austin’s 63 was his best since going a stroke lower to win the 2007 St. Jude Classic.

It could’ve been better, too.

“I just had a boatload of chances and missed a couple of short ones early,” he said. “I made three in a row from long distance to kind of keep my spirits up and just kept on playing good and kept giving myself a ton of chances.”

Clark’s round also could’ve been better. He missed a 3-foot putt on his final hole; if it had fallen, he would’ve tied the opening-round record for the tournament.

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