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Villegas, Toms set pace in California desert

(Reuters) - Refreshed after a lengthy end-of-season break, Colombian Camillo Villegas fired a sizzling nine-under-par 63 to share the first-round lead in the Humana Challenge at La Quinta, California on Thursday.

The 30-year-old from Medellin took advantage of near-perfect conditions with a flawless display on the Nicklaus Private course, one of three venues hosting the pro-am celebrity event.

In pursuit of his fourth PGA Tour title, the muscular Villegas ended the day level with American veteran David Toms, who carded a bogey-free 63 at LaQuinta Country Club.

"It's a really nice way to start the year," a smiling Villegas told reporters. "Nine-under, I kept the ball in play, made a lot of great putts and had a lot of fun out there."

The Colombian, who took an extended break in South America at the end of last year, was especially delighted with his opening round after enduring a relatively poor 2011 PGA Tour campaign.

"Last year wasn't the best one, but it did finish a lot better than the way it started," Villegas said of a season that featured only 14 cuts in 25 appearances on the U.S. circuit.

"I went back to Columbia and had a great four weeks with family and friends, with not much golf. Then I came back to Florida, and practiced for just four or five days.

"So it's one of those things where you feel you're a little rusty but, at the same time, you're mentally fresh. It's a funny game and sometimes being mentally fresh is more important."

PGA Tour rookie Bae Sang-moon of South Korea opened with a 64 to lie one stroke off the pace alongside Americans Brandt Snedeker, Bob Estes and Ted Potter Jr.

While most of the players in the 144-strong field recorded sub-par scores in ideal weather conditions in the California desert, twice champion Phil Mickelson hit two shots out of bounds on the way to a roller-coaster 74.

However, the American world number 15 felt his score did not reflect his form in his first competitive round of the year.

"It wasn't indicative of how I know I was playing," Mickelson said after recording an eagle, three birdies, two bogeys, one double-bogey and a triple-bogey at LaQuinta. "I've been playing really well heading in.

"I played well the front nine, made some good birdies. And then the back nine those couple out of bounds, one was a matter of two feet and then a couple inches on the other. Those could have been a big difference.

"I've been playing so well heading in that I'm not going to let one round affect my outlook. It's a long tournament, a long week, a long month, a long year."

Long-hitting Venezuelan Jhonattan Vegas, who won last year's title in a playoff with Americans Bill Haas and Gary Woodland, opened with a 70 on the Palmer Private course at PGA West.

(Reporting by Mark Lamport-Stokes in Los Angeles; Editing by Alastair Himmer)