Friday, March 30, 2007

HUMBLE, Texas (AP) - When Justin Leonard missed his sixth cut in as many starts this year three weeks ago in Tampa, he had finally seen enough.

Leonard called his agent, David Winkle, and decided to fire swing coach Butch Harmon and caddie Brent Everson and reunite with Randy Smith, the Dallas pro who was his first instructor.

``Nothing against Butch, I wouldn't change our relationship for the world because I learned a lot from him,'' Leonard said. ``He took it very well. I've tried to stay patient, I've tried to stay the course. That's not working.''

With his old teacher and a new caddie by his side, Leonard tied for 75th at Bay Hill two weeks ago, nothing spectacular, but progress.

The biggest breakthrough, so far, came Thursday, when Leonard shot a 5-under 67 in the first round of the Houston Open.

``It's a round that I can build on,'' he said. ``I don't feel like I'm over any hump. But I got a whole lot closer.''

Leonard was one shot behind defending champion Stuart Appleby, Kevin Sutherland and rookie Johnson Wagner, who all shot 66s in the morning, before the wind kicked up and made the 7,457-yard Tournament Course at Redstone more treacherous.

Leonard kick-started his round by chipping in from behind the green at No. 2. He holed a 10-foot putt on the next hole and added birdie putts on Nos. 7, 12 and 13.

He's worked with Randy Smith for only two weeks and already has renewed confidence in his shots around the greens.

``We go over the short game area and he's purposely trying to frustrate me, giving me the most difficult shot you can imagine,'' Leonard said. ``I get on the golf course and everything feels easy after everything I've been through with him.''

Leonard also enlisted the help of a sports psychologist three weeks ago and is learning a thought process before each shot.

``I had gotten into, 'There's my target, I'm going to start it there,' rather than really seeing the whole shot and getting into it,'' Leonard said. ``It's actually been a lot of fun, visualizing shots and trying to match that up.''

Appleby is looking for a fresh start of sorts, too. He hasn't won since Houston last year and has only one top-30 finish this year.

He shot a 66 in the opening round last year on his way to a six-shot victory, but didn't think he played that well to match that score this year.

He broke 70 for the first time this year, shooting a good number despite playing what he called his ``C'' game.

``I'm not really worried about trying to just play good every week and win,'' he said. ``I'm more worried about playing poorer golf better. That's probably what today was. It wasn't quite right, but it was a lot better golf.''

The Australian birdied three of his first four holes in the early morning, when conditions were calm and the course was most vulnerable.

``That really set the theme for the day,'' he said.

Appleby added three birdies on his back nine, but said the round was rougher than his score revealed. He missed seven of 14 fairways, finding a bunker with his tee shot on the par-5 fourth hole that led to a bogey.

``Didn't drive the ball that great as often as I felt I should have,'' Appleby said. ``And I need to get a bit more comfortable on the putting green. I shot 6-under, that's good. I've got some more work to do.''

Bob Estes finished second to Appleby last year after opening with a 71. He came to Houston this year with 15 putters to test and, evidently, picked the right one. He went 17-for-17 on putts inside 10 feet.

``I didn't make everything,'' Estes said, ``but I made most of the putts I was supposed to make.''

Divots: Sutherland has traditionally played well in Houston, losing a playoff to Phil Blackmar in 1997 and finishing in the top 20 three times since 2000. ``I just have a lot of success here for whatever reason,'' Sutherland said. ``Sometimes trying not to figure it out is the best way to go.'' ... Wagner took off his shoes and socks and rolled up his pant legs to save par on No. 18 after his approach trickled to the edge of a pond. Ankle-deep in the water, Wagner pitched his third shot to 6 feet, put his footwear back on and sank the putt. Fans gave Wagner some good-natured heckling during his ordeal. ``(They said) 'Your legs are white, put them back on, get your shoes wet,''' Wagner said. ``It was pretty ugly.'' ... Tripp Isenhour and Jeff Sluman withdrew because of back injuries.

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