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Howell opens with 66; Lefty doesn't break 80

PALM HARBOR, Fla. -- Charles Howell III decided to play
Innisbrook two weeks ago to prepare, then made it pay off Thursday
with a 5-under 66 for a one-stroke lead in the Chrysler
Championship.

Needing a solid week to secure his spot in the Tour
Championship, Howell holed a 35-foot eagle putt on No. 14 and two
long birdie putts on his back nine and led after a first round for
the first time since the Memorial.

Dan Forsman opened with 12 straight pars and finished strong
with four birdies over his final six holes for a 67.

Vijay Singh, who can clinch the money title with a victory this
week, hit his approach into 5 feet for birdie on the last hole for
a 70, although it was a grind. Singh had to make eight par putts of
at least 4 feet, and one bogey putt on No. 12 from about 7 feet.

Davis Love III, also desperate to win to keep alive his hopes
for PGA Tour Player of the Year, opened with a 69.

Only two dozen players broke par on the Copperhead course at
Innisbrook.

The PGA Tour moved 100 miles down the road to another Florida
golf resort, only this is nothing like the courses across the
street from Disney World.

The fairways are tight and wind through trees and over water.
The rough is vicious in spots, and the undulation on the greens
kept the players on their heels.

''You've just got to pay attention on every shot,'' Jerry Kelly
said after a 68, leaving him tied with Robert Gamez, Chad Campbell
and Jose Coceres. ''Even on your layup shots, there is trouble
everywhere. There is really not many gimmes out there.''

Phil Mickelson found out the hard way.

The second-ranked player at the start of the year, Mickelson
virtually assured himself next week off from the Tour Championship
by hitting into the water and into the trees on his way to an 80,
matching his highest score of the year.

Lefty also had an 80 in the final round at Pebble Beach.

He is 37th on the money list and needed to finish at least third
this week to avoid missing the Tour Championship for the first time
since he started playing a full PGA Tour schedule in 1993.

Howell knew what to expect.

He played Innisbrook in junior golf, but had not been back
since. Two weeks ago, he drove over from Orlando to play a practice
round on a quiet Friday morning, the way some guys do when
preparing for majors.

''The way I looked at it, this is a difficult golf course, and
it's worth my time to drive down here and play the golf course,''
he said. ''I enjoy doing that when I can do it. I know a lot of
guys do it for majors. Every tournament for me feels like a
major.''

Howell got in the hunt with a 3-wood from 245 yards that wound
up on the right side of the green on No. 14. He was downhill and
with the grain, the kind of putt that tends to trickle some 6 feet
past the hole -- unless it goes in.

''I was trying to get the speed right and get the ball close to
the hole,'' he said. ''And lo and behold, it was the right speed.
It went in the middle of the hole.''

He drove into the water on the 16th and made bogey, then picked
up another bogey with what he called ''one of the stupidest course
management moves I've ever made.''

Howell hit a 3-iron off the tee on the 455-yard third hole, with
water blocking the right side of the fairway, and watched it hop
once and take a bath.

''It was such a bad mistake, wasn't even mad about it,'' he
said.

Howell recovered with a 40-foot birdie putt on the next hole and
then a 35-footer for birdie on No. 7.

He is 27th on the money list, and should be in good shape for
the Tour Championship.

Others on various bubbles this week might have to sweat it out.

Rocco Mediate is 30th on the money list -- the top 30 get to
Houston for the $6 million tournament -- but appeared to have
trouble moving because of back problems and wound up with a 78.

PGA champion Shaun Micheel is right behind Mediate on the money
list by $5,656 -- about half of what they pay here for last place --
but could manage only a 75.

Further down the list, Per-Ulrik Johansson (No. 125) shot a 74.
Dicky Pride trails him by $654 and was playing in the group behind,
but he wound up matching that score.

Pride wasn't wound up too tight.

On the 12th hole, after Olin Browne and Tim Petrovic hit down
the fairway about 10 yards apart, Pride's tee shot landed right
between their balls. He raised his arms to signal a field goal.

''It's long enough ... it's good!''

Otherwise, it was a grind, but Pride had no problems with that.

''That's what you want,'' Pride said. ''If you're going to put
emphasis on the last tournament of the year for all the different
things -- top 30, top 125, whatever -- it should play difficult.''

Notes
New York Mets catcher Mike Piazza called Howell on Wednesday night to wish him well. They did a Callaway commercial together and keep in touch. ''He's my favorite baseball player, but I'm prejudiced,'' Howell said. ... Gamez is 44th on the money list
and cares mostly about getting into the top 40 so he can return to
The Masters. He has not been to Augusta National since 1991, the
year Ian Woosnam won.