(Reuters) - Rickie Fowler, with one eye on Augusta, turned the other eye to the task at hand, coping with a number of "mud balls" to surge into the first round lead at the Shell Houston Open in Texas on Thursday.
The American ended his day in style, very nearly grabbing a hole-in-one at the 230-yard par-three ninth, his ball rolling past the edge of the cup before settling five feet away, setting up a birdie.
He rolled in seven birdies from inside 10 feet for a bogey-free eight-under 64 and a one-shot advantage over South Korean Kang Sung-hoon, who missed a short putt at the final hole.
Former world number four Fowler skipped last week’s World Golf Championships match-play event, preferring instead to play the week before the Masters.
“I like playing my way into majors and they’ve been able to do a great job here making it as similar to possible of what we may see next week,” Fowler told reporters.
“I love playing here. Just playing and going through the process and getting ready makes it easier when you tee it up Thursday next week.”
Fowler said several of his drives had collected mud on the damp fairways at the Golf Club of Houston, leading to some guess-work on approach shots, with the flight of the ball difficult to predict.
But he didn’t have to worry about mud on the four par-threes, where he could peg it up, making three birdies.
“I was fortunate enough to take advantage of the par-threes and managed my way around nicely with mud balls, as everyone did.
“Yes, the golf course was gettable but tough when you’re playing in those conditions with mud balls.”
Second-placed Kang was poised to join Fowler in the lead, only to miss a putt at the final hole that was officially measured at four feet but looked considerably shorter.
“Unfortunately there were a couple of spike marks and I hit those and kicked to the right,” world number 202 Kang said of his miss. “(Overall I) putted great today. I’m very pleased with how I played.”
Not so great was Phil Mickelson, the three-times Masters champion who shot even-par 72.
“I played terrible,” he said. “I was just a little bit off, didn’t hit my irons close, hit a few in the hazard, just wasn’t quite sharp.”
Mickelson, publicly at least, preferred to think he had gotten his bad round out of the way.
“I think playing here really helps me get sharp (for the Masters), so I don’t have a day like this next Thursday. I like the fact the course is set up similar.”
(Reporting by Andrew Both in Cary, North Carolina; Editing by Ian Ransom)