Houston winners Kim, Wagner contend again
Course knowledge matters at the Houston Open.
PGA Tour rookie Chris Kirk shot a 3-under 69 on Friday to take a one-stroke lead over defending champion Anthony Kim and 2008 winner Johnson Wagner after two rounds at Redstone.
Kirk was 9 under par, and played his last few holes just as the wind picked up in the afternoon and made scoring more difficult.
Kim and Wagner took advantage of the calm morning conditions and used their background at the course to move into contention. Kim shot a 64, the lowest round of the day, and Wagner had a 67.
''I've got very good feelings as soon as I step on the property here,'' Wagner said.
Padraig Harrington, first-round leader Jimmy Walker and Josh Teater were two shots back at 7 under.
Organizers groomed the Tournament Course at Redstone to simulate conditions that players will see at the Masters next week, and the set-up lured many of the world's top players to Houston.
Phil Mickelson (70) and Lee Westwood (72) were part of a large group at 4 under and Ernie Els (72) and Fred Couples (72) were among the players at 1 under.
Kim is trying to become the first back-to-back winner of the event since Vijay Singh won in 2004 and '05, the last two years it was played at the adjacent members' course.
The Tournament Course became the host in 2006, and Kim has enjoyed almost every visit.
Before he turned pro, Kim was the only player to break par in winning a collegiate event here in 2006. He tied for fifth in the Houston Open as a tour rookie in 2007 and shot three sub-70 rounds last year to earn his third career victory.
''It helps, knowing I played well before, knowing I made a couple putts when it mattered,'' he said. ''Some shots I had are similar, some putts I had are very similar, so I try to remember those things, and play off that.''
Kim's 64 was four strokes better than his lowest round when he won last year.
Starting on the back nine, Kim made six birdies in his first 10 holes, including chip-ins on Nos. 12 and 16. He needed only 22 putts to equal his lowest round since January.
Kim said before the tournament that his swing needed major retooling and that he spent several days working with coach Adam Schreiber on changes. Kim's gratified that the work is already producing results.
''It feels great to have that feeling of confidence and go out there, make some good golf swings and make a couple of putts after that,'' Kim said.
Wagner feels a more emotional connection to Redstone, after earning his first tour victory here three years ago. He needs to win this week to qualify for the Masters, but says next week's major has hardly crossed his mind.
A Charlotte resident, Wagner ranks the tournament at Quail Hollow near his home and the Houston event as important as any he plays all year.
''There are a few regular tour events that I treat as a major,'' he said. ''Houston and Charlotte will always be my two favorite events that we play.''
Kirk has some background at Redstone, too. He played for Georgia and competed in the same collegiate event that Kim won in 2006.
''I think he likes this course,'' Kirk said. ''I shot a bunch of 74s, or so, nothing very memorable.''
Kirk, second on the Nationwide Tour money list last year, birdied two of his last three holes to take the outright lead and make up for a double bogey on the par-5 4th.
''I made one bad swing off the tee, and it wasn't even really that bad,'' Kirk said. ''One of those things. No matter how good you're playing, that kind of stuff happens sometimes.''
Harrington also ran into trouble, after briefly tying for the lead early Friday. He made three straight bogeys on his back nine to fall back, then reached the par-5 8th in two shots to set up an eagle to get back to 7 under.
''I just fell asleep there,'' said Harrington, sporting a beard this weekend because he forgot to pack a razor. ''I really kind of battened down the hatches for the last couple of holes, trying to not make too many mistakes after I lost my way.''
The average score for the players who started in the morning (71.46) was more than two shots better than the average for the players who teed off later in the day (73.78).
''As that wind picked up, the ground got really firm,'' Kirk said. ''You had to be a little more careful, really think your way around.''
Former President George H.W. Bush watched the early rounds from a golf cart and greeted Mickelson and Couples as they walked off greens. Bush regularly attends major sporting events in Houston, where he lives.