PALM BEACH GARDENS -- The name hasn’t been atop a leaderboard in recent times, but there it proudly stood Thursday at the Honda Classic.
Camilo Villegas, once a flashy, young, rising, sure-bet star of the PGA Tour, disappeared into the pack years ago and has drawn little attention since — until Thursday.
Villegas, 31, shot a 6-under-par 64 in the Honda’s first round, including a birdie-eagle finish, to take a one-shot advantage over well-known Rickie Fowler, somewhat-known Branden Grace and little-knowns Robert Streb and Graham DeLaet at PGA National Resort & Spa.
The two biggest names in the tournament, world No. 1 Rory McIlroy and world No. 2 Tiger Woods, plodded to uneventful even-par 70s and are six strokes back.
Last year, Villegas, who played his college golf at the University of Florida, hit the depth of his career. He did not have a top-10 finish in all 21 regular-season PGA events he entered.
“I guess when you miss as many cuts and the results are the way they were last year, you just somehow have to be strong with the mind and keep grinding,” said Villegas, a Colombian who has won three times on the PGA Tour, including the 2010 Honda.
“At times it was tough,” he said. “I just played bad the last year and a half. ... I just didn’t play as good as I did the years before. But guess what — I will. I’ll be back.”
In his early PGA days, Villegas made an impression in many ways — his strong game, his good looks, his Spiderman style of lining up putts by placing nearly his entire body stretched out parallel to the ground, a technique he still uses.
In 2006, GQ magazine did a profile on Villegas and mentioned: “... He’s got a closet full of tight trousers.”
Eventually, the victories and the accolades went away, but Villegas refused to do the same.
However, he did admit some of the fun went away.
“I’m very grateful to do what I do, but it wasn’t as much fun,” he said. “The game was kicking my butt a little bit. That’s a good way to put it.
“I mean, you want to be a top-10, top-20, top-30 golfer in the world,” he said. “It’s no different than trying to be a top-10, top-20, top-30 architect in the world. It’s not easy. There’s a lot of competition out there.”
Part of that competition is Fowler, 24, who had a solid round with six birdies and one bogey, which was caused by a three-putt. Recently, Fowler has been battling back problems but might have found a way to reduce the pain, if not cure it, on Thursday.
“Probably the better you play, the better it feels,” he said with a smile. Then he added, “It’s definitely still there and I’m working on it.”
Grace, 24, from South Africa, has four European Tour wins but no PGA victories.
Like Villegas, Grace finished with a flourish, making birdies on the final four holes, including the infamous and treacherous Bear Trap (Nos. 15, 16 and 17).
“Obviously, finishing with four birdies in a row is great,” he said. “You won’t think of making that any day on this course.”
Streb, 25, another non-winner on the PGA Tour, eagled No. 18 to get into the four-way tie for second.
DeLaet, 31, a journeyman with no PGA victories, put himself in good position by doing exactly what Fowler did, making six birdies and one par. The key to his round was missing only one green.
The cool weather was perfect for DeLaet, reminding him a little bit of home.
“I heard guys talking in the locker room about how it’s going to be cold this weekend. It’s supposed to be in the 60s, and that’s not too bad for me. “In fact, this is perfect for me.”