PORT ST. LUCIE, Fla. – Ask Lee Houtteman, the Head Professional at Manitou Passage Golf Club in Traverse City, Michigan, whether the game of golf is mental or physical, and he’d answer “yes.”
Houtteman is joined by 2013 Assistant PGA Professional Champion Gene Fieger in a tie for the lead after 36 holes Friday at the 28th Senior PGA Professional Championship presented by Golf Advisor and Mercedes-Benz USA, which is being contested through Sunday on the Wanamaker and Ryder Courses at PGA Golf Club. They lead Jeff Roth, of Farmington, New Mexico, by one stroke.
Tied for the opening-round lead after firing a 66 on the Ryder Course on Thursday, Houtteman carded an equally-impressive 68 today on the Wanamaker and sits at 10-under-par. He is no stranger to this Championship, having played in it each of the last five years. After he had missed the cut each of the last two, both times by a single shot, something had to change. He started with his mental outlook or expectations.
“So my initial thought coming down here was to make the cut,” said Houtteman, a five-time Northern Michigan Player of the Year. “But, thinking about it a bit more, and I told my wife this, I wanted to really go for it. Let’s try to make some birdies. It’s time to aim a bit higher, and if I don’t make it, that’s OK, because I’ll likely have made the cut.”
Through two rounds, Houtteman’s aggressive mindset has yielded 13 birdies against just three bogeys and he not only made the cut easily, he’s tied for the lead. Today’s round began birdie-birdie on the Wanamaker’s initial two holes. His inward nine included three straight circles on holes 13, 14 and 15.
But that is only half the story.
By mid-summer, Houtteman’s physical game needed a boost. Specifically, his putting. Enter PGA Professional Stefan Carlsmith, who works at the Pelz School.
“Stefan helped me understand my stroke a little more, we talked a lot about both path and pace,” said Houtteman. “Since then, I’ve been putting quite well.”
Fieger, who opened with a five-under 67 on the Wanamaker Course on Thursday, picked up where he left off with three consecutive birdies on the Ryder’s Holes No. 2, 3 and 4. After stumbling to start his back nine with bogies on the 10th and 11th, the 56-year-old recovered by finishing 3-under over his final seven holes.
“I’ve played here a lot. I play well in the Winter Championships,” said Fieger. “It was just a couple weeks ago in the Assistant PGA Professional Championship when the course was brutally hard and brutally long compared to this. It seems a lot easier.”
Even with a share of the lead, the Assistant PGA Professional from the Club Pelican Bay understands how much work remains on the table.
“There’s still a lot of golf left and birdies to make. The weather is perfect and the course is perfect,” he said. “You’re not going to shoot 3-under on the weekend and win this thing. Realistically, you have to shoot 3 or 4-under just to keep pace.”
Roth, the 1993 PGA Professional Champion, registered a 5-under 67 on the Wanamaker Course, which was capped by a lone bogey among his first 36 holes.
“I drove it well on 18. I had a yardage that I probably could’ve hit an 8-iron, but choked down on a 7 and ended up long and left,” recalled Roth, who finished in a tie for ninth last year. “I decided to putt from off the green on a tight lie, but couldn’t get up-and-down. I wasn’t going to bring the water into play. In retrospect, I probably over-clubbed.”
Despite dropping a stroke on 18, Roth has plenty to be encouraged about heading into Saturday. The 59-year-old has made birdie on seven of the eight par-5s thus far, including all four on Friday, and enters the weekend at 9-under.
“It felt good to turn the par-5s into chip-and-putts for birdies,” said Roth. “I just love playing Florida golf. I love putting here because all the information is on the greens.”
Don Berry, of Brooklyn Park, Minnesota, trails the two leaders by two strokes at 8-under through the first two rounds. He struggled to find some momentum on the front nine of the Wanamaker, three-putting the sixth hole to fall 1-over-par. However, he rebounded quickly to finish 6-under-par over his final 12 holes.
“I made a nice birdie on No. 7, and finally started making some birdies and really played well the last 12 holes,” said Berry. “I think the greens are better than they’ve ever been, especially on the Wanamaker. It’s really in great condition and I think the superintendent and the PGA have done a great job.”
Berry said that he’s motivated to keep one streak alive.
“This is my fifth straight appearance, and I’ve made the Senior PGA the first four times,” he said. “I’m trying to keep that [streak] going. My swing feels good. I love the course and love being here. I’m really looking forward to tomorrow.”
Berry is joined in a tie for fourth by Senior PGA Professional Championship rookie, Mike Small, of Champaign, Illinois. Small followed his opening-round 68 on the Wanamaker Course with the same number on the Ryder. He tallied four birdies, two bogies and an eagle on the Ryder’s par-5 6th.
Brad Lardon, the 2006 Assistant PGA Professional Champion who shared the first-round lead with Houtteman, carded a 1-over 73 on the Wanamaker Course and fell to 4-under for the championship. He sits in a tie for 21st.
Defending Champion John DalCorobbo, of Speedway, Indiana, followed his opening-round 75 with another 75, totaling six-over for the week. DalCorobbo missed the cut.
The low 35 scorers following Sunday’s round earn a berth in the 78th KitchenAid Senior PGA Championship, May 25-28, 2017, at Trump National Golf Club outside Washington D.C.