PALM HARBOR, Fla. – When last seen at Innisbrook, Jeff Brehaut was an emotional wreck until making a slippery 4-foot birdie putt on the last hole that made his road back to the PGA Tour much easier.

One year later, Brehaut was still making big putts Thursday in the Chrysler Championship – five birdies, one eagle and a momentum-saving par – that carried him to a 6-under 65 and a two-shot lead as he kept alive his hopes of getting into the Masters or even the Tour Championship.

Charles Howell III did little to hurt his chances of getting to East Lake next week for the season-ending Tour Championship. Coming into the tournament at No. 30 on the money list, he took advantage of the par 5s and kept bogeys off his card for a 4-under 67.

Retief Goosen had a tap-in eagle to start his round and had a two-putt birdie on the par-5 11th set up by a 2-iron from a tight lie that soared high into the air from 257 yards, a shot not many players at Innisbrook can hit.

He also wound up with a 67, joined by Ryder Cup captain Tom Lehman, Ben Crane and Dean Wilson.

Lucas Glover, coming off his first victory last week at Disney, and Davis Love III were among those at 68.

Brehaut might not be here this week without that clutch putt a year ago.

He was 152nd on the money list when he showed up at Innisbrook, his 11th consecutive tournament in a desperate bid to keep his card. All he could hope for late Sunday afternoon was to finish in the top 150 so he could at least go straight to the final stage of Q-school. It came down to a 4-foot putt that was downhill and broke sharply to the right.

“Probably the fastest putt on the course,” he recalled.

Making the putt allowed him to skip the second stage of qualifying school, and Brehaut used that time to win the Callaway Invitational at Pebble Beach. That sent him to Q-school with newfound confidence, and he got his card back.

The 42-year-old Brehaut, perennially on the bubble, for the first time has no worries. He is 61st on the money list thanks to a strong summer, and now can entertain thoughts of some big rewards at the end of the year.

“This is an important week to move back up,” he said.

Steady Nielsen takes narrow lead at Schwab Cup Championship

SONOMA, Calif. – Lonnie Nielsen took a one-shot lead at the Charles Schwab Cup Championship on Thursday, but the leaderboard was just as crowded as the standings for the Champions Tour’s biggest prizes.

Nielsen shot a steady 6-under 66 at Sonoma Golf Club to edge past Jerry Pate early in what seems certain to be a dramatic final event of the tour’s 25th season. Every significant award still is up for grabs, including the season-long points competition for the Schwab Cup and its $1 million annuity.

Dana Quigley, the tour’s money leader, three-putted the 18th hole to finish among nine players at 3 under, one stroke behind Bruce Fleisher.

Nielsen, a longtime club pro in the Buffalo, N.Y., area, has a lead for the first time in 52 career appearances on the tour. He squeaked into the elite 30-man field in 28th place on the money list, but played an impressive opening round under near-perfect conditions in the heart of Northern California’s wine country.

Montgomerie heads Merit race, shares tourney lead with Poulter

SOTOGRANDE, Spain – Colin Montgomerie moved closer to winning the European Tour money title, shooting a 4-under-par 67 Thursday for a share of the first-round lead in the Volvo Masters.

The Scot was tied with defending tournament champion Ian Poulter.

Montgomerie holed a 111-yard wedge for an eagle on the par-5 eighth and birdied the last hole on the 6,952-yard Valderrama course.

“It’s always lucky,” Montgomerie said. “It was a wedge of 111 yards. I hit it 112 and it backed into the hole. You intend to hole it but it’s always lucky when it comes off.”

U.S. Open champion Michael Campbell had a 72 was 23rd in the 55-man field. Montgomerie, trying for his eighth career Order of Merit title and his first since 1999, leads Campbell by $182,000.

The New Zealander is the only player who can catch Montgomerie, but must finish ahead of him here to do so.

Luke Donald, Jose Maria Olazabal and Sergio Garcia shared third place after 68s.

English Ryder Cup player Poulter is trying to extend his streak of winning one title every year since 2000.

Montgomerie, second in the British Open and winner of the Dunhill Links Championship at St. Andrews last month, made a superb start to his round.

He struck his approach to 8 feet at the first hole and made a birdie. He gained another shot at the second hole when Campbell bogeyed from a bunker, and birdied the third from 18 feet.

“The first hole was crucial,” Montgomerie said. “I was anxious, obviously. I felt anxiety which was understandable. But I got rid of that in the first three holes.”

He dropped two shots when Campbell birdied the long fourth hole and Montgomerie bogeyed the sixth after driving into the rough and hitting into a greenside bunker.

“That was a good bogey,” Montgomerie said. “When I saw the lie in the bunker with a big tree in the way, I was looking at a double. I was lucky.”

He immediately birdied the short sixth hole from 30 feet, and the eagle at the eighth gave him a four-shot edge on Campbell.

“It wasn’t great, it wasn’t brilliant,” Campbell said of his round. “All credit to Monty. He played great today.

“It’s a very fickle golf course. I’ve just got to be patient the next three days and pick up some ground.”

Montgomerie said Bernhard Langer’s decision to pick him as a wild card for last year’s Ryder Cup was responsible for his current form.

“Bernhard gave me an opportunity,” said Montgomerie, who sank the winning putt in Europe’s 18-1/2 to 9-1/2 victory at Oakland Hills. “That was a crucial move on his part for my career, because it was going in one direction – the wrong direction.”

AP-ES-10-27-05 1538EDT


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