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Hulbert captures the first round

Orlando resident parlays good Tampa Bay area karma and his sponsor's exemption into a two-stroke lead.

By BOB HARIG

© St. Petersburg Times, published October 20, 2000


photo
[Times photo: Michael Rondou]
Leader Mike Hulbert could put a positive finish on a negative season.
PALM HARBOR -- If this area ever had a cheerleader for golf, it would be Mike Hulbert. He lives in Orlando but loves the Tampa Bay area. He played in the JCPenney Classic every year since 1986. He cajoled his colleagues into coming, too.

So Hulbert was a natural for tournament director Gerald Goodman when it came time to hand out sponsor's exemptions for the Tampa Bay Classic, a new PGA Tour event that began Thursday at the Westin Innisbrook Resort. Hulbert's status in the PGA pecking order had fallen to a new low, but there was never any doubt about him playing in this event.

"(Goodman) told me way back, "You're in as long as I'm running this tournament.' I was coming regardless," Hulbert said. "I like the area; we stay right here at Innisbrook. The people here are nice. And it's only two hours from home."

Hulbert apparently fed off his good feelings, shooting 7-under-par 64 for a two-shot lead over five players after the first round.

The eight-birdie, one-bogey effort at the Copperhead course was Hulbert's 10th sub-70 score in 33 tournaments this year. Consequently, Hulbert, 42, is 214th on the PGA Tour money list with $47,466 and facing a return to the PGA Tour Qualifying Tournament next month.

At least he left for Thursday night's Bucs game with some good vibes.

"This is as low as I've shot in a long time," Hulbert said. "I felt pretty confident for once starting out. I've been in the search mode for a while. But my confidence was up. I know the course, got off to a good start and kept it going."

When it finally was time for the Tampa Bay area's first foray into official PGA Tour golf in 36 years, a longer wait was necessary. The round was delayed 30 minutes because of early morning fog, but once the fog burned off, players were treated to near-perfect conditions with little wind.

The field took advantage, with 49 in the 144-player field shooting under par on the 7,295-yard, par-71 course.

John Huston, Scott Gump, Steve Pate, Carl Paulson and Bob Friend shot 66 to tie for second. Eight were tied at 67, including Fred Couples, Bob May and Lee Janzen.

"When the greens are as good as they are ... these guys can make so many putts," Gump said. "Somebody finds a way. They always do."

It came as no surprise that Huston, 39, was one of them. The Safety Harbor resident has been looking forward to what amounts to a home-course advantage. He estimates he has played more than 100 rounds on the course. "You'd like to think that would help," he said. "But you still have to hit the shots."

He did -- sort of. "I felt like I played pretty well in spots, and yet I hit three or four of the worst shots I've hit all year. I'm happy with the score, but I have to get rid of those really bad shots I hit," he said.

One of those shots came at the par-4 16th, where Huston's 3-wood tee shot went well right and short, and buried in a hazard. That led to a double bogey. Huston, who started on the back nine, birdied six of his next nine holes.

Huston is 35th on the PGA Tour money list ($1,114,695) and would like to qualify for the Tour Championship in two weeks. He is less than $200,000 from the 30th spot.

But some competitors are in more dire straits. Gump is 169th on the money list, Friend 165th. Both need a strong final three weeks to finish among the top 125 and secure playing cards for 2001.

"I'm looking at what Billy Andrade did," Friend said of last week's winner in Las Vegas, who went from 159th on the money list to 43rd. "He found lightning in a bottle."

"My goal is just to play some good golf no matter what happens," said Gump, who has missed 16 cuts in 33 tournaments. "It's been a bad year, no question. I've had no momentum. But I can't complain. I'm still fighting."

That's exactly what Hulbert is doing. At 214th on the money list, he has almost no chance of finishing among the top 125, unless he wins a tournament. And by winning, he would earn a two-year exemption.

"I've been driving the ball poorly for two years," said Hulbert, who has three PGA Tour victories in his career. "I was very consistent before last year, never really struggled to stay in the top 125. They talk about putting, but you still have to drive the ball. With the technology, the young guys coming out bombing it everywhere, you have to drive the ball.

"And I'm slowly getting my confidence back with it."

Hulbert won the 1996 JCPenney mixed-team event with Donna Andrews, but unlike other PGA Tour events, winning that tournament did not get him into this one. So Goodman came through.

"Mike Hulbert has been a good friend, a good spokesman for this golf course and for the community," Goodman said. "He'd do just about anything we'd ask."

All Hulbert is asking for is one good week. So far, so good.

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