HUMBLE, Texas (AP) — Another Australian is off to a fast start at the Houston Open.
Cameron Percy shot a 67 late Thursday afternoon to tie Kevin Stadler for the first-round lead and extend a streak at the tournament for players from Down Under. An Aussie has led or shared the first-round lead in Houston every year since 2006, when the event moved to the Tournament Course at Redstone.
Percy, a Tour rookie, would be more of a long shot, considering some of the big names in the field. Percy arrived in Houston ranked 173rd in putting average and the extra practice on the green this week paid off on Thursday.
"A friend of mine sat me down Tuesday, he looks at my stats," Percy said. "He said, 'Cam, you've got to do something about your putting. It's just woeful, only 70 percent, maybe from 3 feet.' I spent hours and hours on the putting green Tuesday and Wednesday, and it's made a little difference"
Stadler took advantage of an early tee time and posted his 67 more than an hour before Percy teed off.
Vaughn Taylor and James Driscoll — Stadler's playing partners in a morning threesome — were a stroke back along with fellow morning starter Kevin Sutherland and Anthony Kim, who played in the afternoon when the wind picked up and gusted to 30 mph.
"I thought it was going to die down," Percy said, "but it never did."
Phil Mickelson, Padraig Harrington, Lee Westwood and Scott topped a group two strokes back at 69.
Ernie Els, coming off consecutive victories at Doral and Bay Hill, opened with 70. Fred Couples, who has won three straight starts on the Champions Tour, shot a 71.
Several top players have come to Houston because they view the Tournament Course at Redstone as an ideal dry run for next week's Masters. Organizers have groomed the 7,457-yard layout to simulate the conditions at Augusta National, with fast greens, shaved mounds, light rough and the fairways mowed toward the tee.
But Harrington said now that the tournament has started, the players are focused on winning more than fine-tuning their games.
"It's all about trying to win the Houston Open," he said. "Augusta can wait three more days."
Harrington said he played conservatively after a disappointing session on the practice range. He made three straight birdies on the back nine, playing his best after the wind picked up in the early afternoon.
"I was never quite sure of myself," he said. "I was happy to play the golf I played. I made the most of my opportunities when they came around. I just wasn't very confident."
Kim was tied for the lead after making three straight birdies on his back nine, then finished with an adventurous bogey on the difficult 18th. Kim drove into the water, then hit his third shot off a corporate suite and over the water-guarded green. He pulled off a spectacular pitch over the massive greenside bunker, and the ball stopped 2 feet away.
"I didn't like my chances there," Kim said. "I was looking right at the water and looked like the sand was pretty soft. So if I didn't hit it perfectly, it's going to be in one of those two spots."
Stadler, Taylor and Driscoll said they fed off each other, and they finished with six birdies apiece.
Taylor birdied five of his first eight holes, sinking a 47-fooer on No. 3 and a 23-footer on No. 6. Driscoll made the turn at 2 under, then birdied three of his first five holes on the back nine to move within a shot of Taylor's lead.
Stadler then surged to 6 under with four straight birdies on the back nine. He settled for a 67 after a bogey on the last hole.
"We had a good time out there," Stadler said. "I was kind of kicking back, watching those guys make putts most of the day. I made a few late to kind of catch up to them."
The water-lined, 472-yard 18th was the hardest hole in the first round, playing to a 4.413-stroke average.
Defending champion Paul Casey withdrew Thursday morning because of a left shoulder injury. The 32-year-old Englishman called it "just a one-week thing" and won't keep him out of next week's Masters.
Vijay Singh withdrew with a back injury after playing nine holes, the third time in three weeks that he's pulled out of a tournament.
(This version CORRECTS Corrects that six Australians have won the tournament a total of eight times.)