Golf / Sports

Ben Crane shoots 63 for lead in FedEx St. Jude Classic first round

MEMPHIS -- Veterans Ben Crane and Retief Goosen understand their impressive opening rounds Thursday in the FedEx St. Jude Classic don't guarantee they'll be contending Sunday for the PGA Tour event's $1 million first-place prize. Too much can happen during the ensuing 54 holes at TPC Southwind.

What their efforts showed, however, is Crane and Goosen have overcome back issues that seriously threatened their careers.

Crane, 38, shot a 7-under 63 to take a two-stroke lead over Peter Malnati in the rain-delayed opening round. Two shots back were Goosen and Joe Durant. Phil Mickelson shot 67 and is tied for ninth.

Billy Horschel (5 under through 16 holes), Zach Johnson (4 under through 15) and Jason Bohn (4 under through 14) were among the leaders, but did not finish their rounds. Play was suspended at 8:12 due to darkness and followed a 31/2-hour weather delay earlier in the day. Sixty players will complete their first round Friday morning before the second round begins.

Crane's 63 included seven birdies, no bogeys and several par saves and was his lowest round of the season and lowest in nine FESJC appearances.

"I hit a lot of quality shots to give myself some chances," Crane said. "I've changed my game so much this year, it's been a struggle this year. I haven't had this rough a start in a long time. To get a good round under my belt feels amazing, it feels like I'm doing the right things."

Crane said he encountered back problems toward the end of last season and admitted he "didn't see any hope; I didn't think I would be playing golf this year."

He said he discovered the problem was being caused by his golf swing, which has been rectified.

"To be playing has been a blessing, but I haven't played well at all (this season) so I'm excited to now be healthy and finding my game," he said. "I'm encouraged."

It's a sentiment shared by Goosen.

Goosen fired an opening-round 66 and what the South African took from his round was further confirmation that his back problems are no longer an issue. He said he has been able to play the past eight months without the nagging back pain that sidelined him for nearly a year.

Goosen played the morning round before the rains and moderate winds struck. He underwent back surgery in August 2012 and missed the last seven months of the 2013 season. Those health problems prevented him from making FESJC appearances the past two years.

But he's been pain-free this season -- which started in October -- and his game has benefited. He has three top-25 finishes, including two top-10s. He finished eighth at the Sony Open in Hawaii in January and seventh at the Shell Houston Open in April.

"My back is feeling great, no back pain," Goosen said. "I wish I was 20 years younger, but ... my back is feeling probably the best that it has felt in probably six or seven years."

Goosen has 21 career PGA and European Tour victories, but he had wondered if he'd ever be in position to win again during his back problems.

"It's nice to be back out here playing again," he said. "(The back issues) could have been the end of my career, but I'm back out there. I'm feeling confident and hopefully starting to get a better consistency going.

"If I can just get four good rounds in, that will give me a chance to win."

Play was suspended at 1:15 p.m. due to the threatening weather and spectators were not allowed to return to the course, per a PGA Tour ruling. When play resumed, Malnati, a 26-year-old Knoxville resident playing Southwind for the first time, took advantage. He birdied No. 8 to go to 5-under and followed with a par on 9, his final hole, to finish with a 65.

"I was going to be ready whenever we got the chance to play again," Malnati said. "I didn't know if it was going to be (Friday) morning or 30 minutes after the horn blew (to suspend play initially). But I was going to be ready and sure enough I was. And sure enough I was."

Malnati, who had missed seven cuts in his past eight tournaments, got a boost earlier this week by nearly qualifying for the U.S. Open. He started Thursday by birdieing four of his first seven holes.

"Twelve months ago I was playing in a mini-tour event," he said. "(Thursday) I had a text during the rain delay that said 'Go out and get a birdie and you'll beat Phil (Mickelson) this round.' That's a neat thing, but I want to beat them all."

Troy Merritt, another unheralded Tour member, shot 67, but he blew an opportunity to tie Malnati when he double-bogeyed 18 after hitting his tee shot into the water. Merritt, 28, who has made only three of 12 cuts this year, birdied Nos. 11, 13, 14, 16 and 17 before the final-hole breakdown.

"It's one of those shots that just got away," Merritt said of the errant tee shot. "I (normally) hit a fade with my driver, I'm never on the left side of the course. The wind was off to the right, it was a perfect tee shot for me to play. "But I tugged it a little bit and it went swimming, as if we weren't wet enough. I wanted to get a little bit wetter. But, nonetheless, it was a pretty solid round. I haven't had a whole lot of success this year."

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