WHITE SULPHUR SPRINGS, W.Va. — Trevor Immelman’s best round of the year reinforced the former Masters champion’s belief that he can regain his top form less than two years after wrist surgery.
The South African shot a 6-under 64 Thursday to take the first-round lead by a stroke over five others at the Greenbrier Classic.
“I hope I’m close,” Immelman said. “You never know with this game. It’s been a frustrating couple of years not being able to swing the way I want to swing and practice the way I want to practice. For the most part this year, I’ve been able to get back to working on the things I used to work on back then.
“I’m definitely seeing signs of improvement. Albeit slow progress, it’s been progress.”
Shooting 65s were Gary Woodland, Billy Mayfair, Derek Lamely, Webb Simpson and Australian Steven Bowditch.
The Old White TPC course underwent a makeover since Stuart Appleby shot 59 in the final round last year to beat Jeff Overton by a stroke. The renovations included lengthened tee boxes and reseeded greens that are less receptive to approach shots.
The course surrendered 81 under-par rounds on the first day last year; 41 players broke par Thursday.
Immelman, who failed to advance to weekend play in the 2010 tournament, carded seven birdies and a bogey. Although erratic off the tee, his iron play was solid. He missed one green in regulation and five of his birdies came from less than 11 feet.
Immelman began having trouble with his left wrist at the end of 2008. He had surgery in October 2009 and underwent several months of rehabilitation. The closest he’s come to a top-10 finish in the past three seasons is a tie for 12th at the Arnold Palmer Invitational in March.
Although he’s missed the cut four times in his last six tournaments, Immelman is poised to improve on his No. 108 position in FedEx Cup points. He failed to qualify for the playoffs the last two seasons.
“For the most part this year I’ve been working on some of those old feels and trying to get some consistency back,” Immelman said. “I’ve seen signs of some good play and some good shots at the right time. I’m just trying to stay patient with it.”
The top 125 in the FedEx standings qualify for the playoff opener at The Barclays next month. Mayfair is 113th, while former Nationwide Tour players Bowditch (128th) and Lamely (195) are among others trying to move up.
Simpson, in his fifth year on the PGA Tour, is still chasing his first career win and hopes to earn a spot in next week’s Bridgestone Invitational. The top 50 in the world rankings receive exemptions. He’s 53rd.
Mayfair is still looking for his first win since 1998. He earned his PGA Tour card for 2011 after winning qualifying school in December.
Mayfair’s lone top 10 this year was a tie for eighth at the Zurich Classic. Earlier this month he was 9 under midway through the John Deere Classic but finished 7 under.
“It’s been a disappointing year,” Mayfair said. “But as we all say, one week out here can change a lot of things.”
Lamely won the Puerto Rico Open last year but has missed the cut in 25 of 39 events since.
After starting with 12 straight pars, Lamely made birdies on five of his last six holes Thursday, including a chip-in on the par-3 18th.
Woodland, whose first tour win came at the Transitions Championship in March, holed his approach shot from 101 yards for eagle at No. 4 and improved to 5 under after a birdie at No. 14. He had a chance to tie for the lead but overshot the green on the par-5 17th and made bogey. He finished with a 4-footer for birdie on No. 18.
Two strokes behind Immelman were Kyle Stanley, Chris DiMarco, Canadian David Hearn and Brendon de Jonge of Zimbabwe.
The crowd favorite was the group that included Phil Mickelson, Tom Watson and Appleby. It marked the first pairing together for Watson and Mickelson.
Mickelson, who can take over the FedEx Cup points lead with a win, shot a 70 that included five birdies and five bogeys. He then left to meet up with his family for a scheduled white-water rafting trip.
“That’s the game plan,” he said.
Appleby bogeyed his first two holes and shot 71 while Watson, the Greenbrier’s pro emeritus who skipped this week’s U.S. Senior Open in Toledo, Ohio, shot 75.
“Very different golf course,” Appleby said. “I was definitely the third wheel out there.”
NOTES: Sean O’Hair withdrew after winning last week’s Canadian Open, which earned him a spot at Bridgestone … Overton, the 2010 Greenbrier runner-up, shot 74. … J.B. Holmes, who tied Sam Snead’s course record of 60 last year before Appleby erased it, had a 76 Thursday that included double bogeys on both par 5s. … Only four players had bogey-free rounds: Lamely, Will Strickler (67), J.P. Hayes (68), and Spencer Levin (70).