By Vartan Kupelian, PGATOUR.COM Correspondent
PITTSBURGH – There is a constant to John Huston’s golf. He’s a player who doesn’t fear going low, never has and even now, on the Champions Tour, never will.
Huston is back playing, and this week at the Constellation SENIOR PLAYERS Championship he’s back among the leaders at Fox Chapel Golf Club. The notion of “back” is a recurring theme because Huston is playing despite a sore back which forced him into a lengthy absence from tournament golf the Champions Tour.
The SENIOR PLAYERS is only Huston’s third start since the Mississippi Gulf Resort Classic in late March. He tried to play at the Senior PGA Championship at Bellerive but that didn’t turn out well. Last week, Huston finished T32 at the Encompass Championship.
At the SENIOR PLAYERS, Huston fashioned a 6-under 65 in the opening round and Friday added four more birdies and an eagle – his second in two days – to reach 9 under before another summer squall pushed through Pittsburgh and forced suspension of the second round. Play will resume at 8 a.m. on Saturday.
“That kind of blew up on us,” said Brian Claar, vice president of rules and competition for the Champions Tour. “We got a half-inch in 30 minutes, washed out all the bunkers again … It’s saturated.”
Fred Couples, 7 under through 11 holes, has the lead by two shots at 11 under. When play resumes, he will return to the third hole to face a 60-foot birdie putt with a 30-foot break.
“If I two-putt that, I’ll be very, very happy,” said Couples, the 2011 SENIOR PLAYERS champion who played the back nine (his front) at 5-under 30 and made the turn with two more birdies.
“Does it matter that we’re stopping? No. Look at the bright side. I’m hitting it well.”
So is Huston despite his lingering health issues.
“I’ve had a really bad back,” Huston said. “Actually, I was OK until the Atlanta tournament (Greater Gwinnett Classic). I went out to warm up and that was the first time my back really went out on me. I’ve battled with it.
“I thought I was better when I went to St. Louis but I only was able to play nine holes there. But it’s better. Each day I just try to get through the next day.”
While making birdies and eagles.
In Friday’s second round at Fox Chapel, he eagled the 383-yard par-4 15th hole, his last before play was halted. There, he holed a 100-yard sand wedge out of the right rough. On Thursday, he hit a driver to the back of the green on the 295-yard par-4 seventh hole and made a 25-foot putt for eagle.
Huston is no stranger to those kinds of heroic shots produced by his naturally aggressive instincts on a golf course.
“It’s just something I think naturally you’re either born that way or not,” he said. “I feel like whenever you do have the momentum, I think you’ve got to take advantage of it because it can turn around and go the other way just as fast.
“The more birdies you can get on Thursday and Friday, the bigger cushion you have on the last couple of days so I certainly don’t like to try to protect any round. Try to keep it moving forward.”
Huston’s most notable eagle was a hole-out for 2 on the par-4 18th hole at Augusta National Golf Club to end the first round of the 1997 Masters. Huston was in the last group that Thursday at Augusta and the roar echoed through the vacated pines.
Huston, like so many golfers, has battled back issues – “the normal back stuff for probably 20 years but never anything really serious,” he said.
“This is probably the worst it’s been,” he said. “Usually in the past if I had back problems, three or four days I’m back ready to go, but this one’s been a little more difficult.
“For whatever reason it seems like I don’t heal as fast. I used to. It wouldn’t matter what it was, I could come back from it pretty quickly.”
Huston has consulted with all of the proper sources for his back.
“Gary Hallberg finally told me to go see Tom Morris,” Huston said. “He’s worked with Fred (Couples) and a lot of other guys. We’ve been spending a good half the year in Atlanta now and he’s close to there. I went up there and he gave me some new stretches and stuff and helped me out. It’s still not perfect but it is a lot better.”
What Huston feared at Fox Chapel was the continuing soft playing surfaces which make walking stressful. He has three holes remaining in his second round.
Jeff Hart is the leader in the clubhouse. He completed his second round with a 5-under 65, his lowest ever on the Champions Tour, and is at 7-under 133.
Hart missed only one fairway – the first – and with lift, clean and place it was a huge benefit to have it in the fairway.
“It was one of those days where it was kind of easy and it seemed every hole I was putting for birdie. I guess I was in the so-called zone they talk about and it went well.
“I’m carrying the driver 230 to 240 (yards) with a foot of roll. Some of the holes are playing very long for me. But having said that, I hope it rains because the greens are starting to firm up a little bit and I prefer them soft. The softer the green, the better chance I have.”
Claar, with his fingers crossed, said he is still hopeful of getting 72 holes in Sunday night, adding: “We don’t need any more rain.”