American’s Bill Haas and Charley Hoffman both shot stunning seven-under 65’s to lead the Shell Houston Open by one shot after the first day of the final event before the Masters, as the European contingent in the field struggled.
Keegan Bradley and Matt Kuchar had earlier set the clubhouse lead at minus six before Haas - the 2011 FedEx Cup champion – went one better. Hoffman birdied the ninth – his last – to earn a share of the lead going into Friday.
Sergio Garcia's round of five under was the best a European could muster in a heavily USA-dominated leaderboard, although Swede Freddie Jacobson matched his fellow continental to sit tied-ninth amongst a group of players that includes 2011 Masters champion Charl Schwartzel.
Rory McIlroy, heavily tipped to win his third major next week in the absence of world number one Tiger Woods - who underwent successful back surgery on Monday - fired a two-under round of 70, mixing four birdies with two bogies to sit four off the pace in T54.
Triple-major winner Padraig Harrington - needing a win this week to qualify for this year's first major - shot 69, while young Italian star Matteo Manassero matched that with two birdies in his final seven holes after a bogey at the par-four 11th threatened to undo his early good work.
Ryder Cup hero Ian Poulter matched McIlroy's round of 70 after four birdies went some way in rectifying the damage done by an unfortunate double hit from a bunker, as well as a pair of three putts.
And Phil Mickelson - who many thought would follow Woods in withdrawing from Augusta - showed no sign of suffering from the injury sustained in last week's Texas Open which forced the five-time major winner into a withdrawal, as his four-under 68 left him three shots off compatriots Haas and Hoffman.
The 43-year-old three-time Masters champion even shocked himself as he sat T18: “I’m surprised, but I feel terrific.
“In a matter of five days or so it’s cleared up. For me to have a realistic chance or as best a chance as possible at the Masters, I had to play this week and get in a better frame of mind.
“I really needed to challenge myself to give myself the best chance for next week," said Mickelson to reporters.
Dustin Johnson continued a recent trend set by high-profile PGA Tour players by withdrawing citing an injury following an eight-over 80.
Woods, Mickelson, Hunter Mahan, Bubba Watson and Jason Day have all failed to finish a tournament this year – which has been met with criticism from some in the US.
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