BOCA RATON, Fla. – Uh-oh, rest of the Champions Tour. John Huston is in one of those states – Florida, to be exact – where he can seem unbeatable at times.
We shouldn’t be surprised that Huston’s name shot to the top of Allianz Championship leaderboard during Friday’s first round at Broken Sound. Huston was the lone player in the field to reach 7 under after he birdied the par-5 sixth, his 15th hole of the day.
This performance wasn’t a shock when you consider that five of his seven career PGA TOUR victories came in the Sunshine State. He has won in Coral Springs (1990 Honda Classic), Lake Buena Vista twice (at Disney World in 1992 and 1998), Miami (1994 Doral-Ryder Open) and his hometown of Palm Harbor (2000 Tampa Bay Classic). He also teamed with LPGA pro Amy Benz to win an unofficial, mixed-team event in Largo (1988 JCPenney Classic) and, for good measure, the 1995 Florida Open.
You’ve heard of horses of courses, but Huston is simply great in this state.
So, the question has to be asked: Why does Huston tee it up anywhere other than Florida?
“I wish there were more events in Florida,” Huston said. “Most of the times I played was when the PGA TOUR was in Florida, Texas, Palm Springs and Phoenix.”
The biggest surprise Friday came when Huston didn’t stay in the lead for long. He tried to drive the par-4 seventh hole, but had to go back to the tee after the ball was unplayable in the bushes. He reloaded, this time with a 3-wood, and drove the green, saving his bogey with a two-putt.
“I probably hit too much club there, and too far right,” he said.
Huston overcompensated at his closing hole, pulling his drive into the water left of the fairway. He took a drop, hit his approach into a greenside bunker, blasted to 30 feet and saw his bogey putt come up an agonizing inch short of the cup for a double. He settled for a ninth-place tie after a 68, just two shots behind co-leaders Bernhard Langer and Tom Pernice Jr.
“I played pretty good until the last three holes,” Huston said. “Just a terrible finish.”
Huston has 36 holes to recover from Friday’s fiasco of a finish. He certainly has the past performances to make a weekend charge.
Playing well in Florida takes more than getting used to the heat, the Bermuda rough and greens and the mosquitos. Consider Jay Haas, who won a combined 25 times on the PGA and Champions tours, has never won in Florida. Tom Watson didn’t win in Florida until he turned 50, then he won the Outback Steakhouse Pro-Am in consecutive years near Tampa. But Tom Kite never won in Texas, so go figure the home-state advantage.
“I think a lot of it is just the Bermuda grass,” Huston said. “Some guys aren’t as comfortable putting on these greens.”
Huston has always taken an unusual approach to his career. Even though he played 562 events during his 23 years on the PGA TOUR, he managed to have a somewhat ordinary lifestyle. Many weeks he would head to a tournament on Wednesday night, make the cut and a nice check and be home by Sunday night.
“I’m not a real talkative person, so I was never really good at the pro-ams,” he said. “And it was nice to spend as much time at home with my family as possible.”
It took Huston just three tries to win his first Champions Tour event in 2011, but wrist and hand injuries forced him to withdraw three times last season.
“I feel better,” Huston said, “I’m just not playing good.”
But, as he has proven throughout his career, playing in a Florida event usually cures whatever ails his game.