|Appleby, Sutherland, Wagner share first round lead - March 29, 2007
BY ED FOWLER
Bumped up on the golf calendar to the week before the Masters, the Shell Houston Open welcomed an influx of foreign players looking to put an edge on their game they can carry to Georgia. It has been an Aussie-friendly tournament over the years anyway, and both the defending champion, Stuart Appleby, and the highest-ranked player in the field, Adam Scott, hail from Down Under.
So of course, Texans shot up the joint and seized control of the first-day leader board.
To be strictly accurate, we must note that Appleby did blaze his way to a 66 on the strength of seven birdies and grab a share of the lead with Kevin Sutherland and the low Texan, none other than Johnson Wagner.
O.K., he’s not Ben Hogan or Byron Nelson. Young Mr. Wagner, born in Amarillo, is so fresh that he was that rarity among the leaders, a guy who’s not coming back from anything.
He won twice on the Nationwide Tour last year and finished second on the money list to earn his chance against the big kids. He has made seven of nine cuts in his rookie season but has struggled on Sundays. This Thursday was certainly no problem for him. Of the greens, he said, “It’s hard to believe there are any greens in the country, if not the world, better than these.” He needed only 27 putts.
His assessment of the greens, and indeed the course overall, echoed across the Redstone Country Club premises. “Wall-to-wall perfect,” gushed Sutherland, who missed only one green, and made the fringe on that one. “It’s hard to find a weed out there. If we play a better-conditioned course all year, I’ll be surprised.”
Well, if you’re going to get men ready for Augusta, you’d better do things right. The greens were running fast but were accepting shots, especially in the morning before the breeze picked up. Almost all the leaders went out early and benefited from the tamer conditions. Bob Estes of Austin shot the low score of the afternoon, a 67 that needed only 23 putts.
A couple of his fellow Texans who matched that number are trying to get well close to home. Justin Leonard of Dallas, a former British Open champion, has recently swapped out both his swing coach and his caddie in an effort to pull out of a slump. Jeff Maggert of The Woodlands is trying to recover from a rib injury.
No one could use a magic elixir more than the defending champion, however. Appleby, a two-time Houston winner, hasn’t posted a top-20 finish since the season-opening Mercedes Championship. His six-under 66 matched his first-round score of the previous year, which launched him to a six-shot victory.
Sutherland continued his impressive play at a tournament that has proved most hospitable to him. In 1997, his second year on tour, he finished second at the SHO, losing a playoff to Phil Blackmar. This is his 12th consecutive appear in the event, in which he has three top-10s. Sutherland has carted $492,000 out of Houston.
Appleby and his fellow foreigners may still rule. Lee Westwood shot 68, Scott 69 and David Howell 70. It does appear after the first lap, though, that they’ll have to fend off some Texans.