Palm Harbor, Fla. — The PGA Tour event that doesn’t have Tiger Woods this year instead has the Leaping Cougar.
That’s a childhood nickname for Joel Dahmen, who took advantage of gentle, morning conditions Thursday on a tough Copperhead course for a 5-under 66 and a share of the lead with Austrian-born Sepp Straka in the Valspar Championship.
The tournament, trying to have a little fun during Spring Break in Florida, allowed players to put whatever name they wanted on the back of their caddie’s bib. Dahmen, a cancer survivor who keeps golf and life in perspective, went with the name he was given as a boy in Washington state when he was part of a scouts group.
Dahmen doesn’t leap.
“I’ve never seen a cougar,” he said.
His father brought some childhood memorabilia to the Phoenix Open. Dahmen saw the “Leaping Cougar” label, a tour friend got hold of it and the cat was out of the bag.
“I figured the rest of the world should see it this week,” Dahmen said.
Dahmen is playing a course he had never seen for the third straight week. But he has been playing well of late and considers himself a streaky player. Coming off a tie for 12th at The Players Championship, he handled Innisbrook with six birdies and a strong finish – a 6-iron to 4 feet for birdie on No. 3, a 7-iron to 5 feet on the par-3 fourth hole, a 20-foot birdie putt at No. 9.
The lead stood when the wind picked up in the afternoon. Of the 28 rounds in the 60s, only eight were in the afternoon. One of them belonged to Dustin Johnson, the No. 1 player in the world, who had not seen Innisbrook in nine years. He had a 69, with one birdie coming on the 578-yard 14th hole with a big drive and a 3-wood dead into the wind to 30 feet.
“I played a little bit better than my score,” Johnson said. “But first time being here in a while, not real used to the golf course … all in all, it was a good score. I felt the conditions were tricky.”
It was all part of an action-filled day at Innisbrook, where Russell Knox wiped out a double bogey on No. 9 by hitting 3-wood into the cup from 274 yards for an albatross on the par-5 11th, and riding that to a 29 on the back nine. He was one shot behind at 67.
“It’s a good way to go from plus 2 to minus 1 very quickly,” Knox said. “Didn’t even have to putt, which was great.”
And for the second straight week, Peter Uihlein saw the rarest shot in golf. He was standing on the 12th tee when he watched Knox’s ball roll onto the green and into the cup. Last week at The Players, Uihlein was in the same group when Harris English made an albatross.
The group at 67 included Kevin Kisner and Luke Donald, a former world No. 1 who now is No. 919, largely the product of a back injury that has limited him to just six tournaments worldwide in the past year.
Na Yeon Choi had an unexpected share of the Founders Cup lead halfway through the first round in Phoenix in her return from a back injury.
Choi shot a 7-under 65 at Desert Ridge in her first tournament round in 11 months. She joined Charlotte Thomas, Alana Uriell and Jin Young Ko atop the leaderboard in the event that honors the 13 women who founded the LPGA Tour.