Questions were answered in the first round of the Shell Houston Open on Thursday when Phil Mickelson shook off the effects of a pulled oblique muscle and fired a 4-under par 68, 3 shots behind leaders Bill Haas and Charley Hoffman at the Country Club of Houston. Mickelson had four birdies and no bogeys and showed no evidence of being hampered by the injury that forced him to withdraw from the Texas Valero Open last week in San Antonio.
A grey and sometimes misty Thursday made for slower greens and good scoring conditions for the golfers in Houston, with more than half the field shooting under par in their opening rounds. Haas and Hoffman both finished at seven under par, but each got there in a different fashion.
Bill Hass began his day on the back nine and made his only bogey of the day on 13, along with 2 birdies to make the turn at one under par. He then blistered the front nine, pouring in four birdies and an eagle on the par-five fourth hole for a six-under par 30. Playing good golf at Houston is familiar to Haas, who led this tournament through 54 holes last year before fading to tenth place on the final day.
For Charley Hoffman it was a steady round, shooting 32 on the front nine and 33 on the back, with only pars and birdies on his scorecard.
With so many players using the Shell Houston Open as a tune-up for next week’s Masters, the leaderboard is littered with big names and small scores. Right behind Haas and Hoffman at 6 under par is a group of five golfers including Keegan Bradley and Matt Kuchar. They both went out early in the morning and were tied for the lead when they finished their rounds. Bradley, playing along with Mickelson, played bogey-free with six birdies. Kuchar started on the back nine and had 4 birdies to make the turn at 32, then two more birdies coming in. His round was also unmarred by any scores over par.
Bradley is getting comfortable with being near the top of the leaderboard. He has four top-12 finishes this year and was runner-up at the Arnold Palmer Invitational at Bay Hill in March. He likes the Country Club of Houston golf course, having played it in 29 under par over his last nine rounds.
The leaderboard at the Shell Houston Open gets even more crowded at five under par. A total of ten golfers shot 67 in the first round. Sergio Garcia, Stewart Cink, Ben Curtis and Charl Schwartzel are among them. Along with Phil Mickelson, 20 players are one more shot back at four under. Four-time major champion Ernie Els is also in that group, as is Webb Simpson who played in the same threesome with Mickelson and Bradley.
It was not a good day for Dustin Johnson. Playing for the first time after taking four weeks off, Johnson went nine over par in his first six holes and shot 80 on Thursday. He then withdrew from the tournament. No official reason was given.
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Commentary by Chuck Podhaisky