Jeff Sluman tied a course record with a 6-under-par 66 on Friday to take a one-shot lead over Tom Lehman at the Mississippi Gulf Resort Classic at Fallen Oak.
Sluman had a bogey-free round, highlighted by an eagle from 154 yards on the par-4 No. 4. He used a 9-iron on the shot, dropping it about five feet from the hole before it rolled downhill and into the cup.
He knew it had a chance from the moment he hit it.
"I said 'Boy, this is as good as I've got,'" Sluman said.
And the good shots never stopped for Sluman, who is currently fifth in the Charles Schwab Cup standings. He birdied two more holes on the front nine and two after the turn to finish a nearly flawless performance. He said his ball striking was so good that he rarely ran into trouble — and didn't need any miracles on his birdie putts.
"The longest (birdie) putt I made was from three feet," said Sluman, a three-time Champions Tour winner. "If I'm going to have a chance to contend in the golf tournament, I've got to make some putts over three feet. The greens are perfect."
The second-year Champions event yielded some low scores, with 46 out of 79 golfers shooting par or better. David Eger won last year's event, beating Tommy Armour III by one stroke, but struggled to a 75 on Friday.
Sluman said many golfers struggled last year because they were playing the Tom Fazio-designed course — built in 2006 — for the first time.
It also helped that conditions were nearly ideal on Friday, with plenty of sunshine and 80-degree temperatures, as opposed to the wind and rain that dominated last year's tournament.
"Last year, I really had a nice feel for the golf course tee to green, but I didn't putt very well," Sluman said. "But I did like the golf course and the way it was set up."
Even so, there were plenty of challenges. The field averaged 72.456 strokes in the first round, the highest on the Champions Tour so far this year.
Maybe the most daunting was No. 18, which ranked as the third-toughest hole on the course and put a sour ending to many rounds. Among the casualties: Chip Beck was at 3-under until the final hole, but a triple-bogey left him at even par.
Dan Forsman birdied four of five holes on the back nine to pull within one shot of Sluman before a bogey on 18 left him two shots back with a 68. The 460-yard par 4 has a fairway littered with obstacles, including deep bunkers on the left and the course's signature fallen oak tree on the right.
The downhill approach isn't any easier, with water to the left and behind the green swallowing several errant shots.
Sluman managed to escape the final hole with a par, keeping his round intact.
"Not only does (the green) run away from you, but it's downgrain," Sluman said. "So usually you're hitting a longer cut shot in there to the green — it's just a bear."
Tom Lehman, who leads the standings, is in second place after a 67. His success followed Sluman's theme: impeccable ball striking which led to reasonable putts. He also shot a bogey-free round.
"I'm always thrilled when I play a round without a bogey, whether I'm playing at home or playing out here," Lehman said. "You're doing a lot right when you do that."
Forsman, Nick Price and David Frost are tied for third at 4 under.
The golfers had universal praise for Fallen Oak, which played long after heavy rain soaked the course earlier in the week. The weather for the next two days is expected to be sunny and warm, which should dry the course and make the greens faster.
"It's matured," Forsman said. "The greens are firm and much more consistent. They are in marvelous shape. There were a couple of spots last year with some growth issues but they certainly have that solved."
Mark Brooks and Mississippi native Jim Gallagher Jr. both made their Champions Tour debut. Brooks shot 70 while Gallagher Jr. shot even par.
Sluman tied the course record set last year by Frost and Gary Halberg.