SAN DIEGO - Camilo Villegas seems to play his best golf when Tiger Woods isn’t around to defend a title.
Villegas holed out for an eagle early in his round and made a string of birdies late for a 9-under 63 on the easier North Course at Torrey Pines, giving him a three-shot lead Thursday in the Buick Invitational as he goes for a bizarre hat trick.
A victory this week would be his third straight at a tournament where Woods was the defending champion.
Villegas won the BMW Championship and Tour Championship last fall to close out the FedEx Cup portion of the season — both won by Woods the previous year — and he got off to a blazing start on a cloudy, chilly day along the Pacific bluffs.
He hit a lob wedge over the bunker and into the hole for eagle on the par-4 second hole to quickly put his name atop the leaderboard, then built his lead with three birdies in a four-hole stretch on the back nine.
Davis Love III, coming up on two pivotal weeks as he tries to get into the Accenture Match Play Championship, and Aaron Baddeley each shot 66 on the North while playing in the same group.
The best score on the South Course, site of the U.S. Open last summer, belonged to Scott Sterling and Matthew Goggin at 69. Given the disparity of these courses, the leaderboard doesn’t sort itself out until everyone has played both sides.
Phil Mickelson, a three-time winner of the Buick Invitational, put together a solid round of 70 on the South Course with a few big par saves, including a 15-footer on his final hole.
British Open and PGA champion Padraig Harrington, making his PGA Tour debut, started strong with three birdies on the opening four holes of the North Course, but a four-putt double bogey on the 17th sent him to a 71.
Woods is the four-time defending champion at the Buick Invitational, but still is recovering from season-ending surgery on his left knee — a week after his U.S. Open playoff victory.
“I’m glad he’s not here,” Villegas said. “He plays pretty good around here, I can tell you that.”
Villegas wasn’t too shabby on the North Course, which was more than 3½ strokes easier than the South, but still no bargain with blustery, cool conditions, along with greens that were firmer than usual with no water on them in anticipation of rain this weekend.
Coming off a missed cut last week in the FBR Open, Villegas opened with a simple birdie on the par-5 first, then made a mistake with his tee shot on the 326-yard second hole by hitting his drive to the right, 50 yards from the flag with a bunker in the way.
Using a new 63-degree sand wedge, he popped it up over the sand and never saw it go in the hole.
“I had a decent lie,” Villegas said. “I just puffed it up in the air, and I knew it was good, but I didn’t see the ball go in. My caddie said, ’It went in.’ Early in the round, not much of a reaction.”
He made some big putts on the back nine, including a 25-foot birdie on the 14th with a big break to the left. That followed a chip that bounced harder than he expected, part of the difficult of playing the firm greens.
It should get tougher Friday.
The average score on the South Course was 75.37, which is why Pat Perez was smiling after a 73. “That’s like 69,” he said.
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