HUMBLE, Texas (AP) – The putter D.A. Points once took from his mother paid off nicely for him Thursday in the Houston Open.
Points opened with five straight birdies and wound up with an 8-under 64 on a pleasant morning with only moderate wind at Redstone Golf Club. He had a one-shot lead over Cameron Tringale and John Rollins.
Rory McIlroy had to fight hard for a 73.
In his final tournament before the Masters – and his first event since August at No. 2 in the world – McIlroy caught the lip of a bunker and followed with a 5-wood into the water for a double bogey on the par-5 eighth hole that put him at 3-over par. He rallied strong on the back nine with three birdies in a four-hole stretch, only to miss a 7-foot par putt after a flop shot over a wide bunker.
“I felt like on the front nine I was a little tentative,'' McIlroy said. “I just tried to commit to myself a little more on the back nine and it seemed to help. If I could have got it back to even par, I would have been pretty happy, but I'm 1-over par and, hopefully, the conditions are a little calmer tomorrow morning.''
Points first borrowed the Ping Anser from his mother during his junior years in Illinois, and like most golfers, he abandoned it once he stopped making putts. But he recently asked Ping to clean it up for him and add some weight. He also got a putting lesson – no, not from Steve Stricker – and he was on his way.
“Maybe I'm an idiot for not having used this putter the whole time,'' Points said. “It worked well today.''
Points, whose only win came with actor Bill Murray at his side at the Pebble Beach National Pro-am, made all five of his opening birdies from inside 15 feet. He dropped only one shot along the way.
A mild wind gained strength in the afternoon, and Rollins still managed a 65.
“I knew the conditions were going to be tough out there, knew the greens were fast, so that makes it tough as well,'' Rollins said. “I just kept the ball in front of me and gave myself a lot of opportunities and got a solid round out of it.''
Angel Cabrera of Argentina, a two-time major champion who lives in Houston, was in the group at 66.
Phil Mickelson was at 4 under and right in the mix until he hit his tee shot into the water on the sixth hole and made double bogey, nearly hooked a 3-wood into the hazard on the next hole and three-putted for bogey, and then made bogey on the par-3 ninth from a bunker to wind up at 72.
“It was a disappointing finish,'' Mickelson said. “I feel really good with the putter, and I believe that as the tournament goes on, I'll get better.''
Mickelson played with defending champion Hunter Mahan, who didn't hit the ball his best and it finally caught up with him at the end for a 74. Also in the group was Geoff Ogilvy, who needs to finish in the top 50 in the world to get into the Masters. Ogilvy is currently at No. 50, though he will lose spots through the formula this week. He had three penalty shots in his round of 73.
Lee Westwood hit two shots in the water and still salvaged a bogey and was in the large group at 68 that included Riviera winner John Merrick and Jimmy Walker.
Charles Howell III had a 69 in his bid to get into his hometown major at Augusta National. Howell would need to finish at least in fourth place alone to have any chance of moving into the top 50.
For Points, Tringale and so many others, they need a win to get into the Masters.
Points was just trying to see some reasonable results, having made only two cuts all year. He did manage to join a group of stars in the Tavistock Cup earlier this week and, upon leaving home Tuesday, he grabbed a handful of putters. One of them once belonged to his mother.
Ping rep Matt Rollins had some weights added to the putter, and equally important was an impromptu lesson from Lamar golf coach Brian White.
“It's one of those things,'' Points said. “I holed some nice par putts yesterday in my pro-am. I didn't hit it great, but I made a few good putts and the ball was going in the hole with nice pace and rolling real tight. And I thought, `All right, this might be the key that kind of gets me going.'''
That it did.
For McIlroy, it was another slow start. He has yet to break par in his five opening rounds this year – that includes the Match Play Championship – and found himself behind early. He was in a fairway bunker on the eighth hole, opened the face of 9-iron to advance the ball as far as he could, and caught the lip. With some 250 yards for his third shot, a 5-wood leaked into the water and he walked off with a double bogey.
But he never got down on himself.
“I think I learned from that over the last few weeks. I've got to keep my spirits up,'' McIlroy said. “I felt like I was doing that a bit too much at the Match Play and the Honda, and obviously we saw what happened there.''
Frustrations boiled over at the Honda Classic halfway through the second round when McIlroy walked off the course. He vowed not to do that again.
Still ahead of him, though, is making it a long week in Houston. He starts Friday's second round outside the cut line.
Mickelson, meanwhile, was going along nicely despite some errant tee shots, such as his one on the 12th hole. He sliced the tee shot so far left that it bounced off the cart path, across the 13th tee box and down a slope toward the bushes. He was about pin-high, only 100 yards left of the green. He hit wedge into about 15 feet and turned to the gallery and said, “It's all about angles.''
The angles caught up with him. Mickelson tee shot on the sixth never cleared the water, leading to his sloppy finish.
Mickelson enjoys playing the Houston Open before the Masters, but this is a different year. Because of the way the calendar falls, the Masters is a week later, and Houston is now two weeks before the first major of the year. This is only the second time in the last 15 years that Mickelson won't be playing the week immediately before Augusta.
Lefty also plans to skip the week before the U.S. Open.
“It's a very unusual situation for me here,'' he said. “I usually like to play the before. I'm going to have to learn how to do that, now that we're not really having tournaments conducive to getting ready for those events. This is a good opportunity for me to work on getting prepared properly in another spot outside of a tournament.''