Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

Trip to forget; a round to remember

Bertsch bounces into Hope lead after travel headaches in Hawaii

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LA QUINTA, Calif. -- Shane Bertsch hopped out of his RV and excelled on a course he hadn't seen in more than 10 years, opening with a 10-under 62 Wednesday at the Hope Classic for a two-stroke lead over Alex Prugh and Jeff Quinney.

Bertsch was the last player to register for the five-day, four-course tournament after a comically difficult travel path from Hawaii to the Palm Springs area, yet he still posted the best round of his PGA Tour career.

Bertsch had 10 birdies without a bogey even while helping line up putts for his pro-am playing partners under intermittent rain and wind.

"I was just comfortable," Bertsch said. "I always like these formats, because I help the guys out, and it keeps me maybe not so focused on myself until it's time to hit, and then I just go and hit."

J.P. Hayes, George McNeill, Joe Ogilvie and Garrett Willis were three shots back. Heath Slocum, who skipped last week's Sony Open while his wife gave birth, was in a group at 6 under.

Former champion Mike Weir of Bright's Grove, Ont., shot a opening round of 5-under 67. Rookies Chris Baryla of Vernon, B.C., and Graham DeLaet of Weyburn, Sask., opened at 1-under 71.

The rain pelting Southern California this week didn't really cause trouble until later Wednesday, with many players beginning the day wearing nothing thicker than golf shirts before the wind and moisture whipped up.

"It was Palm Springs golf -- not a lot of wind, starting to warm up," Slocum said. "And then all of a sudden when I made the turn, it definitely kicked right back up. The wind started blowing, and it cooled off. I put the sweater back on, and obviously golf is a little more difficult."

Not for Bertsch -- although after missing just two greens and three fairways in a sizzling 25-putt round, he realized he certainly couldn't chalk up his career day to rest or preparation.

He was stuck in Hawaii for a day following the Sony Open, where he finished an encouraging 25th, with his wife and daughters when their red-eye flight was cancelled. They eventually flew Monday night from Hawaii to Phoenix, where the Denver native picked up his RV and drove across the desert to blustery Palm Springs, arriving late Tuesday afternoon.

Quinney, Bertsch and the 25-year-old Prugh all played the idiosyncratic Nicklaus Private course, which is considered among the easiest on tour -- but Bertsch hadn't visited it since qualifying school in the 1990s.

"It was like a new adventure over every hill," Bertsch said. "I didn't know really what to expect. It was one of those courses I just didn't remember a lot about."

Yet Bertsch is no stranger to difficult paths through golf. His entire career has been one big challenge.

He was off the tour from 1997 until 2006, when his comeback was derailed by a bout of vertigo, which sidelined him for most of 2007. He got a medical exemption to play in 2008, but finished 126th on the money list after sitting out late-season tournaments when he mistakenly thought his card for 2009 was safe.

Bertsch then broke his right foot while slipping on the stairs at home in 2008, limiting him to two PGA Tour events and four Nationwide Tour stops last year. A solid performance in Q-school last month got him back on track.

Although the weather largely behaved, the field might not get as lucky Thursday, when heavier rain is expected -- and Bertsch's outstanding opening round could loom even larger.

"It was moist. It wasn't wet," said Hayes, making his season debut after a strong Q-school comeback. "We played the ball up, (but) we didn't really have to. It's probably more in anticipation of what might come than what was today."

 

-- The Associated Press

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition January 21, 2010 C11

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