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Mercedes-Benz Championship

Kapalua, HI (Sports Network) - Nick Watney posted a five-under-par 68 on Thursday to take the first-round lead of the season-opening Mercedes-Benz Championship at the Plantation Course at Kapalua Resort.

Daniel Chopra shot a four-under 69 to grab second place, followed by U.S. Open champion Angel Cabrera, Aaron Baddeley and Jonathan Byrd, who carded matching rounds of 70 on Thursday.

Brandt Snedeker held the lead on the back nine Thursday, but a driver malfunction cost him three shots over the final two holes. He finished with a two-under 71 and is tied for sixth with former Masters champion Mike Weir.

This first tournament of 2008 is only for winners of PGA Tour events in 2007, but not all victors came. Tiger Woods and Phil Mickelson have skipped the event for years now, but two more names, British Open champion Padraig Harrington and last year's runner-up Adam Scott, also passed on Kapalua.

Despite the star power missing this week, it's hard to imagine anyone playing better than Watney on Thursday. The round featured heavy winds that are commonplace at Kapalua and consistent rainfall.

Watney broke into red figures with a birdie at three, then rolled in a 13- footer for birdie at four. The young American birdied the fifth for three in a row. A poor drive at the seventh cost Watney a bogey, but he reclaimed the lost stroke with a nine-foot birdie putt at the ninth.

Watney parred his first five holes on the back, but gave himself a good look at birdie at 14. His 13-footer stayed above ground, but at three-under, he was still near the top of the leaderboard.

At the par-five 15th, Watney's drive hit a golf cart and bounced back into the fairway. It was a great break for last year's winner in New Orleans since his drive was destined for the woods. Watney sank a seven-foot birdie putt on the hole to tie Chopra for the lead.

The 17th was one of the most difficult holes on Thursday with several players needing woods into the green. Watney, one of the longest hitters in the field, roped a solid drive down the fairway, but he got mud on his ball. Watney hit a spectacular second 30 feet short of the hole, then drained the long birdie putt for the outright lead.

He made a four-footer to save par at the last.

"I putted very well and I kept it really simple," said Watney. "I hit to the middle of greens and tried to take what they gave me. It was a very steady day."

Chopra, who won one of the final events of 2007, the Ginn sur Mer Classic at Tesoro, started well with back-to-back birdies from the second. He parred his next five, then closed his front nine with a three-footer for birdie at the par-five ninth.

He birdied the par-three 11th to reach four-under par for the championship. Chopra lost a ball at 14, but still saved bogey thanks to a 25-footer from short of the stick.

Chopra punched a smart approach into the wind at 16. His ball spun back to four feet and he converted the birdie putt to once again get to minus-four, which tied him for the lead at the time with Snedeker.

At the par-four 17th, Chopra hit a driver, but due to the wind, left himself with almost 280 yards for his second shot. He played a three-wood well right of the flag, but lagged his birdie putt to inches and tapped in for par.

"That's unbelievable," said Chopra. "You can hit a short nine-iron or pitching-wedge when it's downwind and the ball's rolling out."

Chopra could not reach the par-five closing hole in two, but left himself a 12-foot birdie look. He missed the putt, but is second, which is a continuation of momentum from last season.

Along with the win at the Ginn sur Mer Classic at Tesoro, Chopra lost a playoff in November to Baddeley at the MasterCard Masters on the European Tour.

"I was playing really well through the middle of the year," said Chopra. "I felt like every part of my game was fine. I felt I needed to take advantage of that and I started pressing.

"Toward the end of the year, Mitch Knox came back on the bag again. I got excited and played more patient golf and allowed things to happen."

Snedeker was in the lead at five-under par until a horrendous drive at 17 led to a double-bogey. He hit three-wood off the tee at the ridiculously-long 18th and that cost him a bogey at the par-five final hole.

The reason for Snedeker's late collapse was pretty simple. He broke his driver somewhere around the 16th.

"I guess it finally said 'mercy,'" joked Snedeker, the 2007 PGA Tour Rookie of the Year. "I cracked the top of it. I hit a good drive on 17 and it went about 180 yards. Bad timing."

Rory Sabbatini, whose last appearance in the golf world was a mysterious withdrawal from the Target World Challenge, shot a one-under 72 and is tied for eighth place with Stephen Ames and Steve Flesch.

Defending champion Vijay Singh struggled to a one-over 74 and is part of a group tied for 16th place.


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