PORT ST. LUCIE, Fla. – Lee Houtteman, of Glen Arbor, Michigan, and Brad Lardon, of Santa Fe, New Mexico, each carded a 6-under 66 on the Ryder Course to share a one-stroke lead on the field Thursday at the 28th Senior PGA Professional Championship presented by GolfAdvisor and Mercedes-Benz USA at PGA Golf Club.
The Ryder and Wanamaker Courses are being used for the first two rounds in the $300,000-purse event, with the Wanamaker hosting the final 36 holes. The Championship attracted PGA Professionals age 50-and-older from 42 states and all 41 PGA Sections.
Lardon, who rallied to win the Assistant PGA Professional Championship a decade ago at PGA Golf Club, followed a trusty game plan upon his return to Port St. Lucie. In 2006, Lardon birdied all four par-5s on the Ryder Course to carry him to victory. On Thursday, he went a step further by registering three birdies and an eagle.
“You have to take advantage of the par-5s and I was able to do it,” said Lardon. “I got a little bit better each day in practice and was able to hit the ball straight. You definitely have to do that here.”
Lardon, 51, began play on the back nine of the Ryder Course and finished with four birdies along with an eagle on the 479-yard, par-5 fourth (his 13th hole of the day), where he hit a 200-yard 4-iron approach to 30 feet and rolled home the eagle putt.
“We’re playing a course that is a bit shorter than what I played in the past, because we are a little shorter off the tee than we were,” said Lardon, who is four months into a new position as PGA Director of Golf at The Club at Las Campanas in Santa Fe. “I am enjoying the new job and though I’m not playing that much, I’m not beating myself up.”
Playing competitively for the first time in over two months, Houtteman, started on the back nine of the Ryder Course. He showed no sign of rust when he birdied two of his first three holes. The 55-year-old PGA Head Professional at Manitou Passage Golf Club followed a birdie on the Ryder’s 17th by holing out on the par-4 18th from a greenside bunker, making the turn at 4-under.
“Holing out relaxed me. On my back nine, I felt like I was in midseason form and felt pretty comfortable,” said Houtteman. “Overall, it was just a really solid day.”
Houtteman’s lone blemish came on the No. 3 hole (his 12th), but he rebounded with birdied on three of his final six holes.
The 2013 Senior PGA Professional Champion, Gene Fieger trails Houtteman and Lardon by one stroke after posting a 5-under 67 on the Wanamaker Course. Fieger, who began play on the 10th hole, tallied five birdies, two bogeys and capped his round with an eagle on the 488-yard par-5 7th.
“I always look forward to playing here, having won this Championship in 2013 and having played four rounds two weeks ago in the Assistant PGA Professional Championship,” said the 56-year-old Assistant PGA Professional at The Club Pelican Bay in Naples, Florida. “This is a big event for us and it’s something that you want to play well in because it gets you recognized by your peers and gets you into the Senior PGA Championship.”
Fieger was joined at 67 by Buddy Harston, of Kingston Springs, Tennessee, and Brent Murray, of Lake Oswego, Oregon. Harston’s six birdies were accompanied by a final-hole bogey on the Wanamaker Course, while Murray settled down after his opening-round bogey on the Ryder Course’s 10th hole with six birdies and 11 pars.
Mike Small of Champaign, Illinois, in his 16th season as the University of Illinois men’s golf coach, made his debut in the championship. He opened with a 68 for a share of sixth place to head a group that includes former PGA Professional Champions Darrell Kestner, of Glen Cove, New York, and Jeff Roth, of Farmington, New Mexico.
Although a rookie in this event by definition, Small’s career résumé would suggest otherwise. He is a three-time PGA Professional Champion (2005, ’09 and ’10), sharing the record with the late Larry Gilbert.
“The course is in better shape than I remembered it. It's probably been about four or five years since I’ve played here,” said Small. “The greens are great on the Wanamaker. It’s good to get back here and be immersed in the PGA ambience."
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., in Potomac Falls, Virginia.
Of the 264 players competing in the Senior PGA Professional Championship, 69 finished under par on Thursday. Thirty players were under par on the Wanamaker Course, while 39 broke par on the Ryder Course.
The 2016 Senior PGA Professional Championship field rom 42 states, includes 26 players from Florida. The Championship also included single entries from Mississippi (Reed Hughes), Montana (Thomas Anderson) and Vermont (Ron Philo Jr.). California (19) and Texas (18) are next in line behind the Sunshine State.
The Wanamaker played slightly tougher than the Ryder Course with an average score of 74.14 versus the Ryder’s average of 73.32, respectively.
The par-4 18th provided the stiffest challenge on the Wanamaker Course during Thursday’s round with an average score of 4.492, while the par-5 16th played the easiest at an average of 4.780.
The Ryder Course’s par-4 3rd played most difficult on Thursday with an average score of 4.336, while the par-5 13th played most generous with a 4.702 average score.
Defending Champion John DalCorobbo, of Speedway, Indiana, struggled to a three-over 75 on the Wanamaker Course.