Tough in Texas for Lowry and Harrington as Spieth shows improvement
 Jordan Spieth

Jordan Spieth

Shane Lowry might find himself in Augusta earlier than planned after he opened with a 72 in the Shell Houston Open.

As for Pádraig Harrington, who needs to win in Humble to earn another trip down Magnolia Lane, a 32-putt, one over 73 leaves him nine strokes off the lead held by 64-shooter Charley Hoffman.

Lowry, who turns 29 on Saturday, made just one birdie in a grim round mark by some grinding with the putter and little luck from tee to green on day when world No 1 Jordan Spieth posted an impressive 67.

The flat stick has not been kind to Lowry so far this year and while he got up and down for par from 112 yards at the third and from 75 yards after finding water at the fourth, holing a couple of four and a half footers, he had little to cheer about all day and is tied for 98th.

Lowry had to hole a 12 footer for his lone birdie on the front nine, avoiding a three putt after hitting his 265 yard approach to 68 feet.

In truth, he never hit the ball close enough to give himself realistic chances and a pulled second to the par-five 13th forced him to take a penalty drop, leading to a bogey six.

When putts did drop, they were for pars, such as the 199-yard 14th, where he found sand from the tee but holed a 13 footer for his par.

Lowry insisted before the start that he was treating the Shell Houston Open for itself rather than a warm up for anything else

Still, he clearly needs a confidence boost after finishing 41st, 53rd and 35th in his last three starts before going out in the group stage of the WGC-Dell Match Play in Austin last week.

While Lowry was grinding, Harrington was battling to avoid disaster having bogeyed the 17th and double bogeyed the 18th after his approach from the fairway bunker on the right found the lake.

While he hit more than 70 percent of the fairways and greens and the longest putt he holed apart from an eight footer for birdie at the first (his 10th) was an unlikely, 54-foot monster for another birdie at the third.

Harrington ended up with -1.5 strokes gained for putting and shares 106th, three shots outside the projected cut mark on one over par.

As Spieth shot 67 to share 11th, behind Hoffman, who leads by one from Dustin Johnson, Robert Castro and Scott Brown, three-time Masters champion Phil Mickelson shot a three under 69.

“The good thing for me, my bad rounds now are respectable,” Mickelson said of his start. “This puts me in a position where if I shoot a number like I feel like I'm capable of, I should be right back in it for the weekend.”

It’s not that Houston is like Augusta National but that having a card and pencil in hand helps the Californian feel he’s preparing well.

“I actually think that it's more just about getting in a competitive frame of mind,” Mickelson said. “I like the way the course is set up. The fairways and the just off the fairway, the first cut, is similar to Augusta.”

Bar Rory McIlroy, many of the leading contenders for the Masters are in action in Texas with world No 1 Spieth, Rickie Fowler (69) and Henrik Stenson (69) also putting the final touches to their preparations in the Lone Star State.

For McIlroy,preparation appears to be as much about dealing with mental pressure as getting his game technically right as he seeks the major he needs to complete the career grand slam.

“It's always going to be there until I get to put a green jacket on my back,” he told PA Sport. “Last year was my first of having to deal with that pressure and I feel I'm better equipped now.

“I’ve got a little bit of experience in how to deal with it and approach it. In 2015 it was a good thing that Tiger was coming back because I felt like it took a little bit of pressure off me.”

He added: ”The thing I have to remember is you've beaten all these guys before and if you simplify it, that's what you're trying to do…

"I felt especially for the first couple of majors last year I maybe put a bit too much pressure on myself, expectations were very high. I just need to not think about the consequences so much.”

Spieth was pleased with his effort having failed to Louis Oosthuizen in the quarter-finals of the Dell Match Play.

“It's very close.” he said. “I came off a solid week last week, which just one kind of off round against Louis. We were able to get some work in with Cameron and continue what we've already been trying to trim that fat going into this week and next. So, solid round. 

“Really wished I could have gotten a little more out of the par 5s and I made the sloppy bogey with a lob wedge in my hand. That kind of stuff we can improve on this week. 

Hit some good putts that didn't quite go. It's 5-under and I'm in this tournament and we'll see what the conditions are like tomorrow, but it looks like scoring will be a little more challenging this week.”