Van de Velde in good shape for his first Masters

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The Independent Online

Jean Van De Velde's late decision to enter the BellSouth Classic paid off with a good start to the first round at the TPC at Sugarloaf. The Frenchman, who has played most of his golf this season in the States, went to the turn in 34, two under par. Three birdies in his first six holes were followed by a bogey at the ninth.

Van de Velde only decided to enter the tournament after missing the cut at last week's Players Championship. Next week he will be teeing up in the Masters for the first time. "I didn't want to hang around for a week," Van de Velde said. "I did not play too well last week at Sawgrass and I didn't want to have to think about too much before Augusta."

A thunderstorm delayed play for two hours after only 35 minutes' play, resulting in a two-hour delay which meant it would be impossible for the first round to be completed before nightfall. Van de Velde had not yet started his round, while Phil Mickelson, the early leader at five under through 13 holes, was interrupted on his first hole.

Mickelson, like Van de Velde, missed the cut at the Players Championship. The left-hander is always a potential threat at Augusta due to his short-game skills, having finished in the top 12 in four out of the last five years. Sawgrass, with its thick rough, is quite another matter, and he opened with an 82 last week. Sugarloaf, however, is more to his liking and he shot a 64 in the third round last year.

While in the past the tournament prior to the Masters was the last chance for the winner to qualify for Augusta, there are no longer exemptions for winning regular tour events. The qualification list has been altered to include the world's top 50 and the top 40 from last year's US money list. Also included for the first time are the top-four finishers from the Open Championship.

Previously, only the champion received an exemption but Van de Velde booked his place at Augusta despite his desperate collapse on the last hole at Carnoustie. The 33-year-old held a three-shot lead on the 72nd tee but took a seven to fall into a play-off with Justin Leonard and the eventual champion, Paul Lawrie. A television commercial in which Van de Velde replays the 18th at Carnoustie with only a putter in an attempt to beat that seven is due for release imminently.

In eight events in America this season, Van de Velde has earned nearly $260,000 (£155,000) and finished second in the Tucson Open. Jose Maria Olazabal was one under through 12 holes while Nick Faldo, drawn alongside Greg Norman for the first two days, was a late starter.

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