McDowell soars in Zurich


NEW ORLEANS (AP) – Graeme McDowell already was thrilled with how he played Thursday in the Zurich Classic of New Orleans. One last shot made him feel even better.

McDowell finished off a flawless round in easy conditions at English Turn by one-hopping a wedge from 116 yards into the cup for eagle on the ninth hole, giving him an 8-under 64 for a one-shot lead over Stuart Appleby.

“That’s a real bonus,” McDowell said. “It doesn’t matter how good you hit. To get the ball in the cup takes a bit of luck.”

It took just that to keep Appleby from leading a PGA Tour event for the fifth consecutive round.

Coming off a wire-to-wire victory last week in the Houston Open, he again made it look easy by never coming seriously close to bogey and hitting a wedge into 4 feet for birdie on the 18th hole for a 65.

And it took an eagle from McDowell to get a small measure of separation from a jam-packed leaderboard, brought on by soft, slow conditions on a course that played so easy that McDowell found himself reaching for a wedge on nearly every hole.

Among par-72 courses used by the PGA Tour, the 7,116-yard English Turn is the third-shortest behind only the cleverly designed TPC at Sawgrass for The Players Championship and the course used for the B.C. Open.

Throw in heavy rain Wednesday that made the greens soft, and wind that disappeared after the first few hours of a sunny morning, and this was a friendly day of golf.

“Five under is a normal score if you want to stay near the top,” Appleby said.

Ten players were in the group at 66, including two-time U.S. Open champion Retief Goosen, who made a late bogey with his best swing of the day, a 5-iron that cut through the breeze and went over the 17th green.

The average score was about 70.5, and only 40 players in the 156-man field failed to shoot par or better.

Masters champion Phil Mickelson, playing for the first time since slipping on his second green jacket two weeks ago, only made birdie on one of the par 5s but still managed to get around in 68 – still trailing 21 players.

David Toms, a Louisiana native and a star in this area for his relief work involving Katrina victims, opened with a 69.

From the morning group, six players were tied at 66. That included Jeff Sluman, who realizes he belongs on the green grass of the PGA Tour, not the bunny slopes of Sun Valley. Sluman went skiing for the first time – at age 48, no less – and was barely getting started down a beginner’s slope when he fell sideways and injured ligaments in his left knee.

Four weeks later, he was even more surprised to finish his round with six straight birdies.

“I’m as shocked as anyone that I’m up here,” Sluman said.

But not for long.

Appleby, who joined Mickelson and Tiger Woods as the only multiple winners on tour this year with his victory in Houston, again was at peace with himself and his game. He birdied three straight holes early in his round, and only had cause for concern with one shot. He pulled his approach to the island green on the par-5 16th and was relieved to see a splash of sand when the ball found a bunker separated the green from the lake.

“That was as anxious as I got today. That was me panicking,” he said.

McDowell had ample reason to panic this year.

The 26-year-old from Northern Ireland injured his back in a car accident outside Manchester, England last year. Then he decided to let his biomechanics trainer also work on his swing, and he started the year by missing every cut on the PGA Tour – the exception was the Match Play Championship, where he lost in the first round – until last week at the Houston Open.

But he recently returned to swing coach Claude Harmon, began to take control of his ball flight and felt his game on the rise.

“I’ve been waiting for this round for a while,” McDowell said.

He played without a bogey and was comfortable with his position near the top of the leaderboard when his gap wedge on the ninth hole headed for the pin. It had plenty of spin, and McDowell figured it would have spun back 10 feet from the cup. Instead, it found the bottom of the cup for an eagle and a 64 that matched his lowest round on the PGA Tour.

Given the conditions, it didn’t surprise him.

“It feels like you’ve got a wedge in your hand all day,” McDowell said. “It’s great to see the rough up and small greens. But this golf course does feel awfully short.”

Goosen figures he could have easily joined him, except for missing a 5-foot birdie on the par-5 sixth, and that 5-iron that he looked so good until it disappeared over the green and into a bunker. And he remains at a loss how he could make a bogey at No. 4 when he was 80 yards from the hole in the middle of the fairway.

But he will have another chance. Not many players saw tougher conditions in the forecast for an English Turn course where all the par 5s are reachable in two and the greens are holding.

“It’s easy to target the flag,” Appleby said.

Divots: Kelly Gibson, the only PGA Tour player who lives in New Orleans, opened with a 78 and was in second-to-last place. Gibson, playing on a sponsor’s exemption, has spent much of his time the last eight months on a foundation aimed at tending for relief workers for Hurricane Katrina. … Goosen didn’t work much on his game the last two weeks because he went home to London, where he said it rained nearly every day. The exception was Saturday night, when he went to Ernie Els’ house for a barbecue. “He was going out for a round of golf Sunday and I flew here,” Goosen said. “And when I left, it was hosing down rain. So I’m sure he had a nice round of golf.”

AP-ES-04-27-06 2051EDT