ENDICOTT, N.Y. (AP) — John Huston defied the odds at the short-and-narrow En-Joie Golf Club course. He struggled off the tee and it didn’t matter one bit.
Despite hitting just five of 14 fairways, Huston fashioned a 7-under 65 on Friday to tie Mark Wiebe for the lead after the first round of the Dick’s Sporting Goods Open.
Huston had seven birdies on a bogey-free day, nearly making eagle at No. 18 when his second shot at the par 4 hit the flag and stayed out. The tap-in birdie tied him with Wiebe, who also had seven birdies and no bogeys as he began his drive to win his second straight event.
“I was usually on the fairway side of the trees anyway and had a shot to the greens,” said Huston, who birdied all three par 5s on the front side. “With these tournaments being three days instead of four, it’s really important to get off to a good start. As good as the guys are, it’s hard to come from too far behind.”
Ronnie Black and Nick Price were tied for third at 6 under, while Steve Lowery, Hal Sutton, John Cook, and Peter Jacobsen were at 5 under. Tom Lehman, who leads Price in the race for the Charles Schwab Cup, had a 1-under 71, while Tom Watson, third in the standings, shot 72 in his first appearance at En-Joie since the 1976 B.C. Open.
The tournament, in its fifth year, has never had a repeat winner and that won’t change. Defending champion Loren Roberts withdrew Friday on his 56th birthday because of back and shoulder injuries.
This is just Huston’s third start on the senior circuit – he turned 50 June 1 – and he’s relishing his new golf life. He tied for 15th two weeks ago at Rock Barn, one place better than his first tourney – the Principal Charity Classic.
“I worked pretty hard to get ready early in the year. I was raring to go when I turned 50,” he said. “You still have to shoot really good scores. It’s certainly not easy, but I feel like I’m playing really well right now. Hopefully, I can keep it going.”
Despite nearly identical days on the scoreboard, the leaders had decidedly different days on a windy day punctuated by a heavy afternoon shower that calmed things down. Huston’s accuracy – or lack of it – off the tee was tied for 75th best, while Wiebe hit 13 of 14 fairways, tied for the tops on the day.
Still, Huston matched Wiebe by reaching 15 of 18 greens in regulation. When he hit a tree at the par-5 fifth hole, he punched out and pitched to 6 inches. And when he nailed more trees at No. 8, he punched out again and hit a sand wedge to 6 feet. None of his birdie putts traveled more than 8 feet, and that saved his round.
“Golf is a weird game,” said the 53-year-old Wiebe, the winner at Rock Barn. “You can hit it perfect and shoot not very well and you can hit it not very perfect and shoot great. Good for him, he has enough strength to hit it out of the rough and I don’t. I have to hit it in the fairway.”
Sutton, who’s been fighting a bad left hip, came into the tournament riding an impressive streak of 86 consecutive holes without a bogey.
So close to Morris Hatalsky’s record of 98, set in 2003. Too close, apparently.
If Sutton had purged that fact from his mind, his caddie was there to remind him.
“You can get to playing too conservative when you’re just trying to keep from making bogeys,” Sutton said. “Before I went out today, I said, ‘Let’s try to make seven birdies today.’ That was my goal. I thought if I had a goal of making seven birdies or more, that would keep me in an aggressive mode instead of trying to think about not making a bogey.”
But after starting with two pars and two birdies, Sutton’s streak ended at the fifth hole when he left his second shot at the 565-yard, par 5 short of the green in the tricky wind and failed to get up and down.
“It’s probably good that I made a bogey early to get that off my mind,” said Sutton, who hadn’t bogeyed since the fourth hole on the second round of the Principal Charity Classic. “The wind is kind of playing a little trickery out there. It’s gusty and moving around a little bit. It can make it tough.” Indeed. Sutton also bogeyed No. 7 when the wind carried his tee shot at the par-3 left into a greenside bunker and he again failed to get up and down.
Black, finally over a pinched nerve in his neck and shoulder, held the early lead and couldn’t hide his newfound glee.
“I’ve been healthy for four or five weeks now,” said Black, who withdrew from two tournaments earlier in the year and has won only $11,188 in six events to date. “I’m physically capable of playing where two months ago I wasn’t. Once I figured out what the problem was, it took me about 2 1/2 months to get back to where I could (play). I felt like I was a 12 handicap. I was embarrassed to be out here, really.”
He wasn’t red-faced on Friday, pulling ahead with four birdies in a five-hole span at the turn and finishing with a three-birdie flourish. Five of his birdie putts came from 8 feet or closer, and he sank an 18-footer at 18. A bogey at No. 5 was somewhat humbling, though.
“I made one mistake where I hit two nice shots on No. 5,” Black said. “I had a very simple bunker shot. I’m an excellent bunker player, so I was licking my chops.”
Instead, he hit it over the green and made bogey.
“I gave up two shots on that one,” he said. “Other than that, I had no mistakes and just putted beautifully.”
Divots: Local favorite Joey Sindelar, also seeking that first victory on the tour, was among a group of five at 4 under … The withdrawal of Roberts marked the second time this year that a champion did not return to defend. Bernhard Langer, who won the 2010 Outback Steakhouse Pro-Am, did not play it this year because of a thumb injury … Mike McCullough and Craig Stadler also withdrew Friday.