POTOMAC - Jay Williamson's opening-round 64 in the $3 million Kemper Insurance Open thrusts him right back into the fire of holding a lead at a PGA Tour event, something he failed miserably at during the 1996 rendition of this tournament. But for co-leader Steve Lowery, fire is something he doesn't particularly want to hear about.
Lowery, who lost his built-from-scratch house in Orlando, Fla., in what appeared to be an accidental electrical blaze last year, was the second group off the 10th tee at the par-71 TPC at Avenel yesterday and went on an immediate birdie binge to make the turn at 4-under 31. But sitting in the media tent after the round, the one-time winner on tour shuddered slightly as he remembered that afternoon last February where he lost everything he and his family had built.
"When I got off the green [at the Touchstone Energy Tucson Open last year], Mark Russell, the tour official, told me there had been a house fire," said Lowery, who chose not to rebuild the house and instead relocated to Birmingham, Ala., where both he and his wife grew up. "My family got out and was OK, but the fire was bad. When I got home, basically everything that I owned was gone. We lost everything. It was a total loss."
At Avenel yesterday, however, it was Lowery who was scorching on the front nine, kick-starting his round with four birdies in the first five holes, before finally stumbling slightly with a three-putt bogey on 16. On the front nine it was more of the same early, with three more birdies in the first five, but then two errant tee shots forced Lowery to make slippery 10-footers on the last two holes to keep his 64 intact.
"I was getting pretty ragged out there at the end," Lowery said. "Fortunately, my short game kept me in there. I was pretty fortunate to get out of a couple holes with pars."
Williamson, who had been in and out of the tour's qualifying school on four occasions, has similarly painful memories of his final round here four Mays ago. Going into Sunday's play that year, he held a one-shot lead over Steve Stricker, but his second-year nerves were dead weight, and 79 strokes later he had plummeted down the leader board, finishing in a tie for 23rd.
"Looking back, I don't think I was really good enough to handle the pressure of whatever a Sunday round brings when you're in the lead," Williamson said. "When I get over the shot I want to feel confident that I can pull it off. Sometimes, under the gun, I had not been able to do it. But I think with the changes I've made [to his swing], it enables me to hit a shot the way I want to."
Before yesterday's round, Williamson made a last-minute decision to switch to a shorter driver and a shorter putter, to compensate for his longer-than-average arms. The move paid dividends early, with solid up-and-down par saves on Nos. 2 and 3, but really made a difference on the back nine, where Williamson packaged a 40-foot eagle putt with four birdies to give him a 29. The 6-under performance was only the second in the history of Avenel, though Brad Bryant's 1991 version was on the par-36 front nine.
"What's funny was I actually wasn't going to use [the shorter putter] today," said Williamson, who has missed the cut in seven of his 15 tournaments this year. "I came prepared well for the week. I hit a lot of good wedges, I drove the ball great, and I made some putts. It's a pretty easy formula for this game, but it's kind of hard to figure out how to do it."
A group of four players are tied for second place, including Brett Quigley and Australian left-hander Greg Chalmers, who are a stroke in back of the duo, after 6-under 65s. Third-year pro Craig Barlow birdied his last two holes to join the group, and Justin Leonard made eight pars and a birdie on the back nine to finish off his 65. Leonard would have been tied for the lead if not for a miscue on the 13th green, where the ball rolled against his putter while he was addressing his birdie putt, costing him a one-shot penalty.
"The way the greens are they're fairly soft on top so it doesn't take much [for it to move]," said Leonard, who called the penalty on himself. "I've had it happen in the wind. I've had it with no wind. I don't even know why it happens, but it does. I don't know if anyone could see it or not, but it doesn't make any difference."
With the heat rising and the course drying out, scores may drop as the tournament moves along. As the fairways get firmer, the chances for more tee shots to roll through into the rough increases, making it more difficult to post a low number. With 10-under being the winning score the past three years, history would seem to support that view, but Lowery was surprised to hear that statistic, saying he thought of Avenel as an "18-under type golf course."
"I think the wind is going to have to blow to keep the scores down that low," he said.