THE WOODLANDS, Texas — Tom Lehman used to hate the Tournament Course at The Woodlands Country Club. Now, he’s wondering why he ever felt that way.
The 53-year-old Lehman had an eagle and five birdies on the first eight holes on the back nine Friday, then bogeyed the par-4 18th for a 7-under 65 and a one-shot lead after the first round of the Champions Tour’s Insperity Championship.
Fred Funk and Houston native Tom Jenkins were tied for second, and past winners John Cook and Bernhard Langer topped a large group at 68.
Michael Allen, coming off consecutive victories at TPC Tampa Bay and the Legends of Golf better-ball event with David Frost, opened with a 69.
Lehman, the player of the year last year after winning three times, shot his ninth straight sub-par round at the Woodlands, a venue that used to conjure nothing but bad memories.
He played in the 1985 Houston Open, the first year it was contested here, and missed the cut. In December 1989, Lehman finished “nearly dead-last” here in PGA Tour qualifying school on a cold, rainy weekend.
“It was a horrendous experience,” he said. “I played poorly and because it was such a big deal, I hated the golf course and I thought I’d never come back.”
But Lehman has top-10 finishes in each of his three Champions Tour starts at the course since 2009, and he was reminded again Friday how well the course actually suits his game.
He hit approach shots close all day, and sank 6-foot birdie putts on Nos. 10 and 11 to get going. He holed a 12-footer on the 13th hole, reached the par-5 15th in two shots to set up the eagle and then tacked on two short birdie putts on Nos. 16 and 17.
“I think to myself, ‘Why did I not come back here? I love this course,’” Lehman said. “It’s just a testimony to how you can get something in your head, when things aren’t going well. It’s easy to say, ‘I don’t like the golf course.’”
Funk, meanwhile, is back at a venue he’s always loved.
He played in that same 1989 qualifying tournament here, but played well and earned his card. Funk then earned his first tour victory here at 1992 Houston Open, also the year he shot a course-record 62. And he met his second wife, Sharon, at a post-tournament party that year.
“A lot of good things here,” Funk said, “plus I love the golf course. It’s a good spot.”
The 55-year-old Funk is coming off a tie for 30th at the Zurich Classic on the regular tour, where he finished with a 68. He has played in four regular tour events this year and hopes to qualify for next month’s U.S. Open.
“I still enjoy playing with the young guys,” Funk said. “I love those guys. It’s just great to see them, and to try to stay in touch with what they’re doing.”
The 64-year-old Jenkins played on the University of Houston’s 1970 national championship squad. He’s staying at his childhood home this week with his 92-year-old mother, Martha, and sleeping in his old bedroom.
“It’s like going back in time,” he said. “You look up and you’ve got all the trophies in the cubby holes up there from when you were 15. It’s kind of a special time. It’s always great to be back and kind of kindle some of those memories.”
Winless since 2006, Jenkins felt totally relaxed as he began his round. He was 4-under par at the turn, then reached the par-5 first hole in two for another birdie. He added another birdie on the par-5 sixth to match his best round at The Woodlands.
Jenkins never felt comfortable in previous professional starts in Houston. His best finish in 15 appearances in the regular tour’s Houston Open was a tie for 30th in 1983.
“Usually, in my past, it’s always been more difficult to play at home, because all the distractions, you’re having to get tickets for everybody,” Jenkins said. “Everybody wants to invite you to dinner. There’s a lot of stuff. It doesn’t happen now, it’s just a little bit different now.”
Jenkins has won seven Champions Tour events, but none since October 2006. He had five top-25 finishes last year, including a tie for 16th at this event, when it was held in October.
He’s quietly confident about his chances here this weekend.
“I still feel like I can play,” he said. “If I get in the hunt, I still feel like I can do it.”