KAUPULEHU-KONA, Hawaii (AP) — With a slim lead on a defenseless course, Brad Bryant won’t dare look in the rearview mirror in the Champions Tour’s season-opening Mitsubishi Electric Championship.
“You just keep the pedal to the metal and hope the transmission don’t blow,” said Bryant, who shot a 7-under 65 on Saturday to take a one-shot lead over Bernhard Langer after two rounds in the winners-only event.
Bryant, who birdied nine holes in the opening round, set the pace early by birdieing six of his first 10 holes and capped his round with a 10-foot birdie putt on 18 for a 15-under 129 total.
The big-hitting Texan is seeking his first victory since the 2007 U.S. Senior Open, where he made up five strokes in the final round and overtook Tom Watson in the second-largest comeback in Open history. Bryant will be the hunted on Sunday.
Langer, the player and rookie of the year, made his move on the back nine, again, birdieing four of the final six holes for a 66. He shaved the hole on several putts before they eventually started falling, just as he did Friday in a back-nine 29.
“I played every bit as yesterday, maybe even better, but just didn’t quite as much out of the round because I had four or five lipouts,” said Langer, coming off a three-win season when he was the lone player to break $2 million in earnings.
Jay Haas, the 2007 player of the year, was third at 13 under after a 66.
Hale Irwin, at 63 trying to become the oldest winner in the tour’s 30-year history, had a 67 to join Jeff Sluman at 12 under, a stroke ahead of Andy Bean (66).
Bryant was in control most of the day and in a good spot heading into the final round. In the previous 25 tournaments, the player who as led or tied for the lead after Saturday has won 16 times.
The 54-year-old Bryant is coming off his first winless season in three years, but broke the $1 million mark for the third straight season with seven top-10 finishes including a third-place finish in the season-ending Charles Schwab Cup Championship.
Bryant was paired with Langer and clearly outdistanced him off the tees. But it was on the greens where Bryant went to work. He got things going by sinking a 20-footer to open the round.
“It’s a strange golf tournament because you have to see who can keep making putts the longest,” Bryant said. “It takes a little bit of the focus off of the ball striking and really on the putting.”
Bryant said being a long hitter really doesn’t mean a lot on the 50-and-over circuit. As a friend once told Bryant, “Being the longest driver on the Champions Tour is kind of like being the tallest guy in a midget basketball game.”
Haas dropped a 15-foot birdie putt on the par-3 12th to momentarily tie Bryant atop the leaderboard at 13 under. Bryant, playing two groups behind Haas, regained the outright lead at 14 under by tapping in for birdie on the 566-yard 10th after missing a 25-foot eagle putt.
Bryant then made a 4-footer after blasting out of the left bunker on the par-5 14th to reach 15 under and take a two-stroke lead over Haas and Langer. Bryant gave a stroke back on the next hole after a poor drive into the right rough.
Bryant had a chance to add to his lead but missed a short putt on 16, his only mistake on the greens.
Langer had two costly bogeys, one on each side. His tee shot on the par-3 No. 5 rolled off the green and he hit into the sand on the par-3 No. 12.
However, he hit a spectacular wedge to 5 feet on 18 to stay a stroke behind Bryant and a shot ahead of Haas.
Haas recovered nicely to save par by making a 17-foot putt on the par-5 14th after his tee shot hooked his tee shot into the lava rocks. But he failed to go up-and-down on the next hole after a poor iron shot.
“I’m just trying to stay within shouting distance of these guys,” said Haas, who has finished no lower than fifth at Hualalai in three trips.
It was a second day of tranquil conditions, which allowed the birdies to flow as freely as the lava from Kilauea. With virtually no wind, volcanic fog from the volcano blanketed the Kona coastline and created overcast conditions.
Hualalai is the easiest course on tour with wide-open fairways, few trees and perfect greens. The only hazards are ink-black lava fields surrounding some of the holes and the distracting views of the Pacific.
The players realize that they can’t let up Sunday.
“You can’t nurse a lead here,” said Loren Roberts, who closed with a 61 in 2006 for three straight rounds in the 60s, but only won by a stroke. Roberts (65) was at tied for 13th at 8 under.
The 73-year-old Gary Player, who had an eagle in the first round, bettered his age for a second straight day with a 71 after opening with a 70. It was the fifth time in this event and 23rd time in his career that he shot his age or better.