January 22, 2009

Bryant Takes Lead In Season Opener

Brad Bryant fired nine birdies en route to an eight-under 64 and one-stroke lead over Hale Irwin and Jeff Sluman

Bryant led the field in birdies and averaged a little over 308 yards off the tee.

Bryant led the field in birdies and averaged a little over 308 yards off the tee.

KAUPULEHU-KONA, Hawaii (AP) -- Brad Bryant birdied nine holes on his way to an 8-under 64 and the early first-round lead Friday in the Champions Tour's season-opening Mitsubishi Electric Championship.

Hale Irwin, who turns 64 in June and is the second oldest player in the winners-only field, opened with a 65. Jeff Sluman also was 7 under with one hole remaining and about six players still on the course.

R.W. Eaks, who carded a rare double eagle, was at 66, along with Tom Kite. Bryant is coming off his first winless season in three season, but broke the $1 million mark for the third straight season with seven top-10 finishes.

After birdieing four of six holes to make the turn at 32, Bryant birdied three of four holes to start the back side. He took the outright lead by holing a curling long, left-to-right putt on the par-4 16th.

Irwin is trying to become the oldest player in the tour's 30-year history. Mike Fetchick won the 1985 Hilton Head Seniors Invitational on his 63rd birthday.

With his son Steve carrying his bag, Irwin putted just 22 times in his round. He wants put a disappointing year behind him where he failed to finish in the top-10 for the first time in his illustrious career.

And there's no better place than Hawaii, where Irwin has won nine official events, including the PGA Tour's 1981 Hawaiian Open and twice at Hualalai, where he is making his 14th straight appearance. The 45-time Champions Tour winner won here in 2007 and 1997.

Irwin got it going by sinking a 20-foot birdie putt on No. 1 and chipped in from the fringe, about 25 feet away, on the par-3 17th.

Sluman got off a torrid start with five birdies in the first seven holes.

Conditions were ideal at the scenic layout, which features forgiving fairways and immaculate greens. With only a gentle wind, the players attacked the pins.

Hualalai is the tour's easiest layout in the last six years with an average score below 70. Eaks turned in the shot of the day with a double eagle on the 551-yard seventh. After blasting a drive and catching a solid roll on the downhill fairway, Eaks holed his second shot using a 5-wood from 246 yards.

The rare albatross moved him to 5 under through seven holes. There were only two double eagles last year, compared to eight aces.

The 73-year-old Gary Player eagled the par-5 No. 7 and beat his age by three strokes. It was the fourth time in this event that the South African star has beaten his age. The defenseless Hualalai was a welcome start to the season for everyone except Pete Oakley, who shot himself out of the tournament after just two holes by carding a disastrous 9 on the par-4 second where he got in trouble in the dried lava. Last year, he finished a shot out of last place.

Oakley was having such a difficult time on the hole, Irwin and Player played through. Champions Tour player and rookie of the year Bernhard Langer got off to a slow start but birdied seven of nine holes to reach 6 under with three holes left. The two-time Masters champion is coming off a three-win season where he was the lone player to break $2 million in earnings.