SEASIDE, Calif. – Carl Cooper of Humble, Texas, atoned for a visit three years ago to Bayonet Black Horse Course that ended in disqualification, by firing a 6-under-par 66 Thursday for a one-stroke lead in the 27th Senior PGA Professional National Championship.
Cooper, a 54-year-old PGA Teaching Professional at Humble Golf Center on the northeast side of Houston, made eight birdies to offset a pair of bogeys on the Bayonet Course, which yielded the day's best rounds among the 264-player field. The Championship, presented by Mercedes-Benz USA, features a total purse of $285,000.
Gene Fieger of Naples, Florida, the 2013 Champion, and Chris Starkjohann of Oceanside, California, were a stroke behind at 67. James Mason of Dillard, Georgia, last year's runner-up, was among a six-player group at 68.
Cooper is one of 52 returnees to Bayonet Black Horse, which hosted the 2012 PGA Professional National Championship. This week, Cooper arrived with an extra dose of motivation.
"I got disqualified for having an illegal wedge (in 2012)," said Cooper. "It's a long story, but this course kind of owes me. I deserve a little grace if it comes my way and I think I received that today. Hopefully, it lasts the rest of the week."
Cooper sped to a 3-under-par start on the front nine, and birdied the 10th despite his second shot on the par-5 hole striking a tree. He followed by sticking his approach to three feet. After missing a short par putt at 11, he gained momentum with four straight birdies between Nos. 13 and 16.
"The tees are up quite a bit since 2012, and I haven't really lost any distance off my tee shots," said Cooper. "I cut a few corners, but the course is in such good shape, no question about it. The greens are a little tricky. This is a big man's course, and fortunately, I think that fits my game."
While Fieger made six birdies between the fourth and 11th holes on Black Horse, Starkjohann rallied from a 2-over start through four holes with eight birdies on Bayonet.
"I've had some problems the last couple years making the cut from lack of focus," said Starkjohann, the 2006 Senior PGA Professional Player of the Year. "I've got some new irons (Nike) and they're just starting to come around."
Starkjohann’s iron play was so precise that his longest birdie putt was eight feet. He tapped in for a one-footer for birdie at 18.
The field will be trimmed to the low 70 scorers and ties after Friday's round, with the final two rounds on the Bayonet Course.
The low 35 scorers following Sunday's round earn a berth in the 77th Senior PGA Championship presented by KitchenAid, May 26-29, 2016, at Harbor Shores in Benton Harbor, Michigan.