PALM HARBOR, Fla. — Shawn Stefani is the latest PGA Tour rookie to look comfortable on a big stage.
It just took him a little longer to get there.
In breezy conditions on a tough golf course, Stefani never came close to making a bogey until his final hole Thursday in the Tampa Bay Championship. He rolled in a par putt from just inside 5 feet to complete a 6-under 65 and take a two-shot lead over Brian Harman.
“Kind of fought through a couple of bad shots coming in — or not so great shots — and managed to get balls up-and-down and make a few putts,” Stefani said. “So all in all, today was a great day and looking forward to getting out there tomorrow.”
There’s not many “bad” shots in a bogey-free round on the Copperhead course at Innisbrook, which some consider the best track on the Florida swing. The course played just more than two shots over par. Only 13 players broke 70, and 25 players broke par.
Harman came up short and into a bunker on the ninth hole and closed with his lone bogey for a 67. Harris English finished on the 18th and also hit into a bunker, except that he three-putted from 40 feet above the hole and had a double bogey. That gave him a 68, tied with Brendan Steele and Tag Ridings.
Geoff Ogilvy, at No. 49 in the world and needing to stay in the top 50 the next three weeks to get into the Masters, was in the large group at 69 that included Lucas Glover and a pair of past champions in Vijay Singh and K.J. Choi.
Stefani is a 31-year-old from the Houston area who finally made it to the PGA Tour by finishing 16th on the Web.com Tour money list. He is playing new courses and staying in unfamiliar places, though he had at least a few examples of other rookies this year to show the way.
Russell Henley won the Sony Open, and another rookie (Scott Langley) played with him in the final group. Three others have played in the final group this year — Brad Fritsch at Torrey Pines, James Hahn at Pebble Beach and Luke Guthrie two weeks ago at the Honda Classic.
“It’s great to see those guys play well, because I competed with those guys all last year and they all won — except Scott — on the Web.com last year a few times and they are all super nice guys, good players,” Stefani said. “Everybody hits their strides differently. I’m more of patient kind of guy, and just kind of wait for things to happen. I know eventually things will start clicking, and I’ve really been close to playing good all year.”
Defending champion Luke Donald opened with a 70 and was angrier than usual, a testament to the course. Donald was poised to open with a great round, at 4 under with four holes to play despite missing three birdie chances inside 12 feet.
A poor drive led to bogey on the sixth. His tee shot on the par-3 eighth rolled toward the back lip of a bunker. And then a flier out of the rough on No. 9 sailed over the green and into a slope in the bunker with very little sand. That made for three bogeys in four holes, and turned a solid round into a frustrating one.
“At one point I felt I should have been 5 or 6 under,” Donald said. “To walk off with a 70 and play like that is hard to take. It was shame to cough up a couple of shots. Fifteen of those holes, I played really solid golf.”