PALM BEACH GARDENS, Fla. (AP) — Branden Grace was downright bullish when it came to the "Bear's Trap" on Thursday in the Honda Classic.
Grace knew from television and from Charl Schwartzel about the notorious four-hole closing stretch at PGA National. It didn't seem to bother him Thursday when he birdied every hole in the "Bear's Trap" — Nos. 15, 16 and 17 — and added a birdie on the 18th for a 5-under 65 that gave him a share of the lead with Graham DeLaet of Canada among early starters.
Dustin Johnson finally got his game on track to join the group at 66.
Tiger Woods turned around his fortunes with one risky decision. He stepped into the water left of the sixth fairway to play a shot that was half-submerged in a creek, turning a likely double bogey into a par that enabled him to salvage a 70.
Grace, part of the core group of young South Africans on the rise, is making his Honda Classic debut.
"I sat down with Charl last week at the Match Play and he said, 'Listen, the four finishing holes are quite a beast out there.' So I was a little nervous coming here," Grace said. "I just thought, 'What's going to happen around that corner?'"
The first one was easy after a tee shot into 2 feet on the par-3 15th. He holed birdie putts of about 18 feet on the next two holes, and then his 3-iron barely cleared the water in front of the green on the par-5 18th, leading to a simple up-and-down to finish in style.
Some of the tees were moved forward because of rain earlier in the week that softened the course, and players were allowed to lift, clean and replace their golf balls. PGA National is converted into a par 70 for the tournament, however, which keeps scoring at a premium.
"This is a golf course that you have to really hit good shots," said DeLaet, who missed only one green in regulation. "You can save yourself with a few putts here and there, but if you're hitting it poorly, it's going to eventually catch up to you."
Woods didn't hit it all that poorly, except for his tee shot on the par-4 sixth, with the tees moved forward 40 yards. He drove it left and down the bank into the water. Because of where it first crossed the hazard, he would have had no chance to get near the green after a penalty drop. Woods saw enough the ball to give it a shot.
He removed his shoes and socks as the gallery came to life, and then put on rain pants and removed his sweater. The ball shot out with a big splash, leaving Woods about 80 yards to a front pin. He hit wedge to 8 feet and saved par.
"I wasn't trying to advance it very far, just make sure I got it back in the fairway and give myself some kind of wedge shot in there, which I did," Woods said. "I was 1 over at the time, and if that ball is not playable from where it's at, where I crossed was pretty far back. ... Looking at 6 — 3 over — and all of a sudden I flip it, make par there and birdie the next."
Woods said it was an otherwise boring round, and he was right. He dropped one shot from the middle of the 10th fairway (his first hole), and another when his plan to hit a cut from around a palm bush didn't go as far as he wanted and left him a long, tough bunker shot.
Rory McIlroy, the No. 1 player in the world and the defending champion, was among those who played in the afternoon.
Johnson, playing alongside Woods, was coming off a miserable stretch of golf in which he missed the cut at Pebble Beach, missed the cut at Riviera and then was bounced from the first round of the Match Play Championship by Alex Noren.
But he spent enough time at home in south Florida with Claude Harmon III, mostly on his driver. His miss was a hook, and it was a big miss. This time, he kept the ball in the short grass for most of the cool, cloudy morning and took advantage of his birdie chances.
The weather didn't get much better at the start of the Florida swing.
In a year that already featured high wind on Maui, a fog delay at Torrey Pines and snow — yes, snow — in Arizona for the Match Play, players showed up in sweaters because of a front that moved through behind the rain.
This is not what Grace imagined during this stretch run leading to the Masters.
"I've never seen or touched snow before last week," said Grace, who grew up along the Garden Route of South Africa near some of the world's most pristine beaches.
He is covering a lot of new territory.
One week after this first experience with snow, Grace played his first practice round with Ernie Els on Tuesday.
Grace, just like former British Open champion Louis Oosthuizen, honed his game through Els' golf foundation at Fancourt. It was a big deal to play with his idol for nine holes, though Grace politely left out that they have played with each other once before — in a one-hole playoff in South Africa when Grace beat Els and Retief Goosen for his second pro title. Grace went on to win five times last year, four of them on the European Tour.
Johnson was joined at 66 by Boo Weekley, Sean O'Hair, Billy Horschel and Fabian Gomez.
Charles Howell III shot 67, an important start for him. Howell is at No. 64 in the world, and he has until the end of March to move into the top 50 and qualify for the Masters in his hometown of Augusta, Ga.