Friday, April 03, 2009

HUMBLE, Texas (AP) — Nicholas Thompson and Briny Baird took advantage of calm, clear conditions Friday to shoot 7-under 65s and lead after the weather-delayed first round of the Shell Houston Open.

John Senden joined the leaders with a 65 later in the day and Paul Casey, James Nitties and Tommy Armour III were among the group one shot back when the opening round ended late Friday afternoon. The first round resumed under blue skies and mild breezes after high winds forced the suspension of play Thursday.

Fred Couples and Justin Leonard posted early 68s Friday.

The 26-year-old Nitties had the best score among the 72 players who had their rounds stopped on Thursday. Phil Mickelson didn't deal with the interruption nearly as well, stumbling to a 77.

The players who wrapped up their first rounds on Friday morning were not teeing off again until Saturday morning. The rest of the field played their first rounds on Friday and then hardly got a break before starting their second 18.

Thompson had eight birdies and a bogey on Friday, his best round in 11 starts this year. He walked off No. 18, stopped for a quick interview, then raced to a a waiting cart to head to No. 10 and start his second round.

Baird, playing in the group behind Thompson, didn't even stop for reporters, grabbing a sandwich from a cooler before another cart whisked him off to the 10th tee. Baird moved to 9-under early in the second round as players raced the sun.

The 26-year-old Thompson felt fortunate to avoid the wind gusts that reached 50 mph on Thursday. But he said any advantage that group gained would even out because the other players got to rest most of Friday.

``You never know what's going to go on,'' Thompson said. ``Luckily, the guys that did tee off yesterday (Thursday), didn't have to play too many holes (Friday). It's not like they sent them back out. Some guys only had to play three holes.''

Most of the world's top players - 15 of the top 20 - flocked to The Tournament Course at Redstone to tune up for next week's Masters. Nitties needs a victory here to join them after only earning his tour card last year, his fourth try at qualifying school. He already has two top-10 finishes, but has set modest goals for this week and 2009.

In other words, don't count him among the group ready to challenge Tiger Woods.

``I'm not the type of guy saying, 'I'm going to be No. 1 in the world,' because I'm realistic,'' said the Australian. ``My goal is to get to Top-10 in the world. If I can do that, then I'll reassess my goals. As long as Tiger is around, I'm never going to get to No. 1.

``It annoys me when people come out and they just say they're going to be No. 1, when they just clearly know that it's impossible to beat the best of all time.''

Woods bypassed Houston, sticking to his usual routine of skipping the run-up event to a major.

But the comfortable weather drew big crowds Friday and they got an early morning treat when fan favorite Couples birdied four of his first seven holes. He three-putted No. 6, but still wound up with his fourth straight sub-70 round at Redstone.

``I like the course,'' said Couples, who played for the University of Houston. ``A lot of it is shaping it, and the way your eye looks at it.''

Divots: Defending champion Johnson Wagner, who's missed six cuts in 10 starts this year, shot a 2-under 70 in the first round. ``There's nothing about this place I don't like,'' Wagner said. ``There are a lot of birdies out there, and I know where they are.'' ... Chris Couch withdrew after three holes on Friday with a shoulder injury. ... Greg Norman, making a rare appearance on the regular tour to prepare for the Masters, had two birdies on Friday to finish a 71. ... Former President George H.W. Bush and his wife, Barbara, rode around the course on a cart, waving to fans and watching the tournament. The Bushes live in Houston.

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