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 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.

Coming off a tie for 12th at The Players Championship, Dahmen 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.

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.

Woods played the Valspar Championship last year before enormous crowds and finished one shot behind.

Woods didn’t return this year with The Players moving back to March and the Match Play next week in Texas, his final event before the Masters.

LPGA: Celine Boutier closed with a 4-foot birdie putt for an 8-under 64 and a one-stroke lead in the Founders Cup at Phoenix.

Na Yeon Choi was tied for second with Alana Uriell, Charlotte Thomas, Jin Young Ko and Nanna Koerstz Madsen in the event that honors the 13 women who founded the tour.

EUROPEAN: Former champion Marcus Fraser and Nacho Elvira turned in 7-under-par 65s for the joint lead of the Maybank Championship after the opening round at Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia.

A shot behind were Jazz Janewattananond, Angelo Que and Matthias Schwab.


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