Houston winners Kim, Wagner contend again

Posted April 01, 2011, at 8:38 p.m.
Last modified April 01, 2011, at 10:22 p.m.

HUMBLE, Texas — PGA Tour rookie Chris Kirk shot a 3-under 69 on Friday to take a one-stroke lead over defending champion Anthony Kim and 2008 winner Johnson Wagner after two rounds at the Houston Open.

Kirk was 9-under par, and played his last few holes just as the wind picked up in the afternoon and made scoring more difficult. Kim and Wagner took advantage of calm morning conditions. Kim shot a 64, the lowest round of the day, and Wagner had a 67.

“I’ve got very good feelings as soon as I step on the property here,” Wagner said.

Padraig Harrington, first-round leader Jimmy Walker and Josh Teater were two shots back at 7 under.

Organizers groomed the Tournament Course at Redstone to simulate conditions that players will see at the Masters next week, and the set-up lured many of the world’s top players to Houston.

Phil Mickelson (70) and Lee Westwood (72) were part of a large group at 4 under and Ernie Els (72) and Fred Couples (72) were among the players at 1 under.

The cut fell at even par, and former Masters champions Jose Maria Olazabal and Angel Cabrera were among those who failed to qualify for the weekend.

Kirk, second on the Nationwide Tour money list last year, birdied two of his last three holes to take the outright lead and make up for a double bogey on the par-5 4th.

“I made one bad swing off the tee, and it wasn’t even really that bad,” Kirk said. “One of those things. No matter how good you’re playing, that kind of stuff happens sometimes.”

Kim’s 64 was four shots better than his lowest round when he won last year.

Starting on the back nine, Kim made six birdies in his first 10 holes, including chip-ins on Nos. 12 and 16. He needed only 22 putts to equal his lowest round since January.

Kim said before the tournament that his swing needed major retooling and that he spent several days working with coach Adam Schreiber on changes. He’s gratified that the work is already producing results.

“It’s been a tough stretch,” he said, “but I’m glad to have this one (round) under my belt and now I can draw back on this and know that when I get it going, I can shoot under par.”

And it certainly helps that he’s back at one of his favorite courses.

Before Kim turned pro, he won a collegiate event here in 2006. He tied for fifth as a tour rookie in 2007 and shot three sub-70 rounds last year to win.

“It helps, knowing I played well before, knowing I made a couple putts when it mattered,” he said. “Some shots I had are similar, some putts I had are very similar, so I try to remember those things, and play off that.”

Wagner earned his first tour victory here three years ago, then tied for 36th at his first and only Masters the following week. He needs to win this week to qualify for Augusta again, but says next week’s major has hardly crossed his mind.

A Charlotte resident, Wagner personally ranks the tournament at Quail Hollow near his home and the Houston event as important as any tournaments all year in his mind.

“There are a few regular tour events that I treat as a major,” he said. “Houston and Charlotte will always be my two favorite events that we play.”

Harrington seems to like it, too. He’s played here every year since the event moved to the Tournament Course at Redstone and finished in the top 40 each time.

He opened with a 68 on Thursday, then birdied two of his first three holes in the placid morning conditions on Friday. Also starting on the back nine, he hit his tee shot into the bunker on the par-3 14th and bogeyed, but then holed birdie putts on 16 and 17 to reach 8 under.

Harrington dropped back with three straight bogeys on his back nine, then reached the par-5 8th in two shots to set up an eagle to get back to 7 under.

“I just fell asleep there,” said Harrington, sporting a beard this weekend because he forgot to pack a razor. “I really kind of battened down the hatches for the last couple of holes, trying to not make too many mistakes after I lost my way.”

Walker struggled to a 74 after tying the course record with a 63 on Thursday. He dunked his tee shot in the pond on No. 11 on Friday and took a double bogey, and made only one birdie the rest of the way.

Former President George H.W. Bush watched the early rounds from a golf cart and greeted Mickelson and Couples as they walked off greens. Bush regularly attends major sporting events in Houston, where he lives.

Sluman’s 66 ties record

SAUCIER, Miss. — Jeff Sluman tied a course record with a 6-under-par 66 on Friday to take a one-shot lead over Tom Lehman at the Mississippi Gulf Resort Classic at Fallen Oak.

Sluman had a bogey-free round, highlighted by an eagle from 154 yards on the par-4 No. 4. He used a 9-iron on the shot, dropping it about five feet from the hole before it rolled downhill and into the cup.

He knew it had a chance from the moment he hit it.

“I said ‘Boy, this is as good as I’ve got,”’ Sluman said.

And the good shots never stopped for Sluman, who is currently fifth in the Charles Schwab Cup standings. He birdied two more holes on the front nine and two after the turn to finish a nearly flawless performance. He said his ball striking was so good that he rarely ran into trouble — and didn’t need any miracles on his birdie putts.

“The longest (birdie) putt I made was from three feet,” said Sluman, a three-time Champions Tour winner. “If I’m going to have a chance to contend in the golf tournament, I’ve got to make some putts over three feet. The greens are perfect.”

The second-year Champions event yielded some low scores, with 46 out of 79 golfers shooting par or better. David Eger won last year’s event, beating Tommy Armour III by one stroke, but struggled to a 75 on Friday.

Sluman said many golfers struggled last year because they were playing the Tom Fazio-designed course — built in 2006 — for the first time.

It also helped that conditions were nearly ideal on Friday, with plenty of sunshine and 80-degree temperatures, as opposed to the wind and rain that dominated last year’s tournament.

“Last year, I really had a nice feel for the golf course tee to green, but I didn’t putt very well,” Sluman said. “But I did like the golf course and the way it was set up.”

Even so, there were plenty of challenges. The field averaged 72.456 strokes in the first round, the highest on the Champions Tour so far this year.

Maybe the most daunting was No. 18, which ranked as the third-toughest hole on the course and put a sour ending to many rounds. Among the casualties: Chip Beck was at 3-under until the final hole, but a triple-bogey left him at even par.

Dan Forsman birdied four of five holes on the back nine to pull within one shot of Sluman before a bogey on 18 left him two shots back with a 68. The 460-yard par 4 has a fairway littered with obstacles, including deep bunkers on the left and the course’s signature fallen oak tree on the right.

The downhill approach isn’t any easier, with water to the left and behind the green swallowing several errant shots.

Sluman managed to escape the final hole with a par, keeping his round intact.

“Not only does (the green) run away from you, but it’s downgrain,” Sluman said. “So usually you’re hitting a longer cut shot in there to the green — it’s just a bear.”

Tom Lehman, who leads the standings, is in second place after a 67. His success followed Sluman’s theme: impeccable ball striking which led to reasonable putts. He also shot a bogey-free round.

“I’m always thrilled when I play a round without a bogey, whether I’m playing at home or playing out here,” Lehman said. “You’re doing a lot right when you do that.”

Forsman, Nick Price and David Frost are tied for third at 4 under.

The golfers had universal praise for Fallen Oak, which played long after heavy rain soaked the course earlier in the week. The weather for the next two days is expected to be sunny and warm, which should dry the course and make the greens faster.

“It’s matured,” Forsman said. “The greens are firm and much more consistent. They are in marvelous shape. There were a couple of spots last year with some growth issues but they certainly have that solved.”

Mark Brooks and Mississippi native Jim Gallagher Jr. both made their Champions Tour debut. Brooks shot 70 while Gallagher Jr. shot even par.

Sluman tied the course record set last year by Frost and Gary Halberg.

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