By Mark Lamport-Stokes
SAN DIEGO (Reuters) - While most eyes were on six-times champion Tiger Woods as he briefly moved within a stroke of the lead at the Farmers Insurance Open on Thursday, Brandt Snedeker launched his title defense in barnstorming style.
Snedeker, who has posted four top-10s in his previous six appearances in the PGA Tour event at Torrey Pines, charged into a tie for the lead with South Korean KJ Choi after carding a flawless seven-under-par 65 in the opening round.
The fast-talking American birdied four of his first nine holes before picking up three more shots after the turn on the easier North Course, one of two layouts hosting the fourth PGA Tour event of the year.
"Obviously, a great start," FedExCup champion Snedeker told reporters after a mainly overcast and calm day at Torrey Pines. "It was nice to be back here defending. The golf course is in great shape and to play the way I played today was nice.
"I drove the ball really well, didn't make too many mistakes and, when I did, my putter saved me.
"It was a great day, but I realize we've got three more of them (rounds) to go and I've still got the hard course to go, so not too much excitement yet."
Choi birdied three of his last four holes on the tougher South layout to join Snedeker at seven under while Woods, who got to six under after a storming seven-under run from the fifth to the 13th, finished bogey-par-bogey-par for a 68 on the South.
"I made a few mistakes out there, but I made some nice plays as well," said Woods, whose charge came immediately after he had double-bogeyed the fourth. "We couldn't ask for better conditions to score than we had today."
Canadians Mike Weir and Adam Hadwin, who both started out on the North course, and Britain's Ross Fisher were among a group of eight players knotted on 66.
Weir, the 2003 Masters champion, is in good position to end a run of 17 consecutive missed cuts on the PGA Tour dating back to 2011, after being hampered by a lingering elbow injury.
"I've tried to have a positive outlook as bad as I've played and as much as I've struggled," the 42-year-old said. "I'm happy with the progress I'm making. My putter was just really hot today."
Snedeker, who tied the North Course record in 2007 with a blistering 11-under-par 61 in only his third start as a PGA Tour member, has always felt comfortable at Torrey Pines.
"The golf course just fits my eye really well," he said. "I come in hitting the ball the right speed, reading the right lines and when you do that, and you have that kind of confidence, it kind of bleeds into the rest of your game."
Choi, an eight-times winner on the PGA Tour, was delighted with his impressive start on the challenging South layout.
"My goal today was a couple under par," he smiled after mixing eight birdies with a lone bogey. "I hope that this momentum just carries on into tomorrow and the weekend."
Phil Mickelson, a three-times champion here whose tournament preparation was distracted by unwise public comments he made about his tax concerns, struggled on the greens on the way to a level-par 72 on the easier North Course.
"It's fun to see a guy play well, it shows you what you need to do," said Mickelson, who totaled 30 putts while playing in the company of Snedeker. "I didn't play the best. I hit it poorly. I putted poorly.
"But I love being here at Torrey Pines. The golf course is in great shape, the greens are as firm as I've ever seen them and I'll see if I can get it going tomorrow."
The scoring average on the North course was 70.06 during the opening round while the South layout played to a mean of 71.73.
(Reporting by Mark Lamport-Stokes; Editing by Gene Cherry/John O'Brien)