HUMBLE, Texas (AP) — Stuart Appleby was back on top of the leaderboard at the Houston Open on Thursday with the same first-round score that propelled him to a six-shot victory last year.
He wasn’t as excited about his 6-under 66 this time, because he knows he isn’t playing as well as he was a year ago.
Kevin Sutherland and rookie Johnson Wagner, who was born in Amarillo, also shot 66s to share the first-round lead. Like Appleby, they teed off in the morning, before gusty wind kicked up and made the 7,457-yard Tournament Course at Redstone more challenging. (Go to leaderboard.)
“The course is there to be had,” Appleby said. “It’s not a difficult course in no wind.”
Texans Justin Leonard, Jeff Maggert and Bob Estes were in a group of six players one shot back after 67s. Estes had the lowest round of the afternoon starters.
Appleby hasn’t won since Houston last year and has only one top-30 finish in seven starts in 2007. 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.
Appleby still easily broke 70 for the first time this year, scoring well 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.”
Leonard, who lives in Dallas, shot in the 60s for the first time since last October, playing what he thought was his best round since 2005.
The 1997 British Open champion finished 109th on the money list last year and hasn’t had a top-10 finish since last February.
Leonard missed the cut in his first six starts this year and finally ran out of patience. He fired swing coach Butch Harmon and caddie Brent Everson and reunited with Randy Smith, the pro at Royal Oaks Country Club in Dallas, who was Leonard’s first instructor.
The moment Leonard started working with his old teacher, his outlook improved.
“It’s probably 10 percent swing and it’s probably 90 percent just the surroundings, being at Royal Oaks on the back of the range,” Leonard said. “When you make changes, it’s easier to go back to what you know, because there’s a familiarity there. I think that breeds confidence.”
Leonard has also started seeing a sports psychologist, trying to rediscover the mind-set that helped him win 10 tournaments between 1996-2005.
Two weeks ago at Bay Hill, Leonard tied for 75th with his childhood coach at his side and new caddie Brian Smith (no relation) on his bag. It was nothing spectacular, but Leonard saw encouraging progress.
Leonard spent the last two weeks working with Randy Smith in Dallas and arrived in Houston feeling good about his game for the first time in months.
“After the work that I’ve put in the last 10 days, I kind of expected to play well,” he said. “It’s a nice change of pace.”
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.
“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 today.”
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 six 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.