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Rookie leads Tampa Bay Championship

PALM HARBOR — On a day wind and cold kept scores high, one of the more unlikely players in the field to go low did on Innisbrook's Copperhead Course to grab the first-round lead of the Tampa Bay Championship on Thursday.

PGA Tour rookie Shawn Stefani shot 6-under 65 to take a two-shot lead over second-year pro Brian Harman.

"It was a good day for me," Stefani, 31, said. "I hit some really good shots. I love the golf course. It fits my eye."

It was Stefani's first competitive round on the Copperhead Course. He played in a Monday pro-am and got in nine holes Wednesday morning before playing it Thursday afternoon.

The result was a bogey-free round that included three birdies on each of the front nine and back nine. Stefani's 65 tied his lowest round of the season, which came last week at the Puerto Rico Open.

"I've been playing well this year and really didn't play badly when I missed cuts," said Stefani, who has missed three of six cuts. "You've got to hit good shots out here. It's a shot-makers' course."

Harman played the Copperhead Course last year for the first time at this event and missed the cut after an opening-round 74.

This year in his first-round 67 he was much more consistent. He made five birdies and had only one bogey, which was on the ninth hole (his 18th).

"I'm a year older now, and I guess I'm a little more patient," Harman, 26, said. "I realize that I don't have to make birdie on every hole. Sometimes par can be a really good score out here."

Harris English can attest to that. He was 5 under heading to the 18th hole, but his approach shot on the par 4 buried in the greenside bunker. He blasted out, then three-putted for a double bogey to drop into a three-way tie for third at 3-under 68 with Brendan Steele and Tag Ridings.

Steele was a little more consistent. He had only one bogey and four birdies to get into early contention.

"It's definitely as good as I've played this year, for sure," said Steele, whose best 2013 finish is a tie for sixth at the Phoenix Open two weeks ago.

This is the first time Stefani had an overnight lead on the tour. His best position after any round had been a tie for 22nd after the second round of the Sony Open, the second event of the year in January. The Texas native won twice on the Web.com Tour in 2012, which allowed him to earn his PGA card.

Before 2012 Stefani bounced around minor-league circuits such as the Adams Tour and the Hooters Tour. Now the former Lamar University standout finds himself in the lead at a tournament that has never had a rookie champion.

"Everybody hits their strides at different times," Stefani said. "I've always been kind of a patient guy. I know it will come eventually. I've worked hard, and I've never been afraid to work hard. Lately I've been working on the mental part of the game."

>>fast facts

Number of the day

25 Players, out of 156, who broke par Thursday. That's 16 percent of the field.

Rookie leads Tampa Bay Championship 03/14/13 [Last modified: Friday, March 15, 2013 9:36am]
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