If your head lolled back on a grassy embankment and your eyes slowly shut at the Kemper Open yesterday, you could be forgiven. The field was even more somnolent than the weather, Gil Morgan's 67 lending him a one-stroke lead over Scott Hoch, while Seve Ballersteros of Spain missed the cut.
Morgan, the 44-year-old optometrist who has not won a tournament since 1983, teed off on the 10th hole and made four morning birdies in his first nine holes for a 67 and a total of 7-under 135 on the par-71 TPC at Avenel course. Hoch, his playing partner, bogeyed the final hole, three-putting the infamous par-3 island ninth, to relinquish a share of the lead with his second consecutive 68.
Beyond those two, the leader board was unremarkable. With so few players of note in the field of 156, and 6,917-yard Avenel behaving ungenerously, the compelling drama of the day became whether Ballesteros -- the field's marquee name -- would make the cut to the low 70 players and ties. He did not, exiting with a 72 and total of 3-over 145, missing it by a stroke. Defending champion Tom Byrum was another casualty with his 71, which also left him at 145.
The departure of Ballesteros, winner of five major championships, was hastened by his second double bogey in as many days, and then a last, costly bogey at the 17th hole when a difficult chip shot hung up in the grass just short of the green. He missed five birdie putts of 12 to 15 feet, a common theme among players on the hot, dry afternoon.
"Nothing happened," Ballesteros said, summing it up.
First-round leaders Pat McGowan and Ted Schulz each scraped out rounds of 72 to fall two strokes back with three others. Schulz, teeing off on the 10th, was 8-under-par after two holes, but could not sustain it, suffering three bogeys from the 12th through 15th. McGowan was fortunate to salvage what he did after chipping in for a bogey at the par-3 third hole and double-bogeying the par-4 fourth.
The winless Buddy Gardner (69) and Billy Ray Brown (70) were three strokes back at 138.
The one move of any significance was accomplished by Mike Smith, a 40-year-old journeyman who has passed through the PGA Tour qualifying school five times. He came out of nowhere to tie the course record with a 64. The record originally was set by Tom Kite in 1987. Smith was the seventh player to tie it, and the accomplishment placed him in a group of seven yesterday at 139. Kite quietly was in contention with his second consecutive 70 for 140.
Morgan never actually has practiced optometry, having been on tour since 1972. "And I hope I never will," he said. "It would mean I'm not doing too good out here." Although he has not won in seven years, he cited this season as his best since undergoing surgery on his rotator cuff in 1986. He has twice been a runner-up, in the Los Angeles Open to Fred Couples and the Independent Insurance Agents Classic, losing a playoff to Tony Sills.
"I've been playing good," he said. "I hit a bunch of good shots. Maybe I can put it all together one of these weeks."
Morgan's round could have been much lower, with fine iron shots that gave him birdie chances on virtually his entire front nine. He missed just two greens, and estimated that he has been in the rough only two or three times in two rounds.
That is precisely the kind of golf that wins the Kemper, which places a premium on accuracy. Morgan frequently was in contention when the Kemper was held at Congressional Country Club, and seems to have adapted to Avenel since the tournament moved in 1987, finishing fifth last year.
"The verdict is still out," he said.
Beginning at the 10th hole, he gained two quick strokes with shots that dropped right on the flagstick. A 9-iron at the 147-yard 11th settled to two feet. A sand wedge at the 301-yard 14th also landed "gimme" distance away.
Yet another birdie came at the 467-yard 16th, with a 6-iron shot to 15 feet. He drained a 25-footer on the 195-yard 17th to make the turn at 4 under. He also had makeable putts that did not drop at the 12th, 13th and 18th holes. But everything slowed to a halt on the front nine. He missed a four-footer for birdie at the second hole, and ultimately exchanged a lone birdie with a bogey.
Hoch voiced a complaint heard all over the course, that the ball simply wouldn't fall in the hole, the greens dried out by the sun and a light breeze. He missed five birdie putts of four feet or less.
"You can hit it close enough," he said. "But it's tough to make the putts."
He dispersed his birdies evenly, with two on each side of the course. Like Morgan's, they came with razor-like iron shots that left him putts inside of 12 feet.
"It got kind of competitive over the last few holes out there," Morgan said.
But Hoch lost the duel on the ninth green, the 166-yarder surrounded by a creek and marked by severe undulations. He had a 50-foot putt from the fringe, and it sailed eight feet by. The return edged out.
The demise of Ballesteros was a slow-bleeding affair. The Spaniard was just slightly errant from the tee, off line from the fairway and amiss on the greens. In the first round, a double bogey had come at the par-5 sixth when he lobbed a sand wedge into a creek. Yesterday, it came at the eighth, a downhill par-4 of 424 yards.
Standing in the fairway, Ballesteros's routine approach iron strayed right into a pot bunker. A few feet to the left and he would have been on the flag. With the top of his head invisible from the green, he lobbed his sand wedge 20 feet past the flag, a large undulation between his ball and the cup, and he three-putted.
"I was doing all right," he said. "I hit a good tee shot. My second shot was a little to the right, and I get up and three-putt."
What ultimately undid him was the par-3 17th. He stepped to the tee on the cusp of making the cut if he could get to the clubhouse in even par for the day. But his iron shot again strayed, this time to an embankment left of the green.
The ball settled on a downslope, with a bunker to travel over to get to the cup. He gently bladed his wedge for what was almost a miraculous recovery, but the ball caught in grass and stopped on the edge of the green, 20 feet shy of the hole. The putt never had a chance, curling away.
"I hit a good shot, nearly perfect," he said. "It was nearly impossible; the best you can do in the situation."
Ballesteros worked his way through his entire bag of clubs in the few days he spent at Avenel, preparing for the U.S. Open in two weeks at Medinah in suburban Chicago. He described his game as just slightly awry, "not too far from okay." Surprisingly, he did not take a dislike to Avenel, which in its history has fallen into disfavor with the more aggressive players. He suggested he may return.
"I received a very warm welcome," he said. "In the future -- I don't know if it will be next year or maybe the year after -- but I'd like to come back and show that I can play better than 145."