HUMBLE, Texas (AP) — Jimmy Walker followed Anthony Kim’s unorthodox strategy on the first day of the Houston Open.
Walker overcame erratic tee shots with smooth putting to tie the course record with a 9-under 63 on Thursday and take a two-shot lead over Josh Teater and Nick O’Hern.
Last year, Kim won the tournament, despite hitting only 23 of 56 fairways across four rounds. But Kim tied for second in putts per round (27.75) and averaged nearly five birdies per round.
Walker hit only 5 of 14 fairways, ranking 136th out of the 142 players who started on a warm, placid day at Redstone. He still matched the scoring record set by Johnson Wagner and Adam Scott in the first round of the 2008 tournament. Wagner went on to win that year.
“I’m not going to say like, ‘Oh, every time I hit the green, this one is going in,'” Walker said. “I just kept stroking it. I felt like I kind of got back to feeling that stroke that I was using earlier in the year, when I was putting so good and playing so good.”
Walker started on the back nine and quickly realized that he had the touch, sinking 17-foot birdie putts on Nos. 14 and 16. He holed two 15-footers on Nos. 4 and 6 to reach 8-under par, then knocked in an 8-footer on the par-5 8th.
The San Antonio resident changed putters at the start of the season, and he’s made six cuts in eight starts and already has three top-10 finishes this year. His round Thursday matched the lowest of his career.
“When you putt well,” Walker said, “it cures a lot of ills, for sure.”
Chris Kirk was three back after a 66, and Steve Stricker, John Rollins, Nathan Green and Brendan Steele shot 67s and were four behind.
Like Walker, Teater and Rollins also need victories to earn invitations to Augusta next week. And as long as they’re in town, they’re both hoping to see their favorite college basketball teams take home a trophy, too.
Teater is a die-hard Kentucky fan and Rollins is the only VCU graduate on the PGA Tour. Both have tickets to Saturday’s Final Four games – Butler-VCU and Connecticut-Kentucky – at Reliant Stadium, about 25 miles from the course.
Both have considered the tough decision they may have to make on Monday – fly to Augusta to get ready for the Masters or stay in Houston an extra day to see their team play for a national championship.
“I don’t want to cross a bridge that I haven’t gotten to,” Teater said. “If it comes to that, I’ll probably stay for the game. But Monday night, it would be nice to be there, celebrating with everybody else.”
Rollins’ connection to VCU is more personal. The Richmond native is a longtime friend of Athletic Director Norwood Teague and has built a friendship with Rams coach Shaka Smart, who’s played in Rollins’ charity golf event the past two years.
Rollins has missed three cuts in his past five starts, and says he’s drawing inspiration from VCU’s surprising run.
“This could be exactly what I needed for my golf game,” Rollins said. “This could be something that I need to kind of get a little bit of a spark under me to get me going and just kind of maybe wake me up or whatever.”
Calm conditions yielded low scores at Redstone on Thursday. A total of 32 players broke 70 and 87 players shot even-par (72) or better.
Tournament organizers lured many top players by grooming the course to simulate conditions at Augusta – light rough, shaved mounds, fast greens and fairways mowed toward the tee. And most of the big names scored well, as they fine-tune their games for next week.
Lee Westwood and Padraig Harrington were in the large pack of players at 4 under, Phil Mickelson and Retief Goosen were at 2 under and former Masters champions Angel Cabrera and Fred Couples were 1 under.
Mickelson was 3 over after seven holes, then appeared to crack his driver hitting his tee shot on the par-5 8th. But Mickelson said the club was only marked, not damaged, and he hit it well the rest of the day.
He made six birdies the rest of the way to match his third-lowest round in four starts at the Tournament Course at Redstone.
“The course has got to be the best manicured course I think we play on tour, outside of maybe Augusta,” Mickelson said. “The greens, they’re just pristine. If you get the ball tracking on the right line, you know it’s in.”