Percy running hot

Another Australian is off to a fast start at the Houston Open.

Phil Mickelson hits out of a bunker on the 12th hole during the first round of the Houston Open Thursday.

Phil Mickelson hits out of a bunker on the 12th hole during the first round of the Houston Open Thursday.

HUMBLE, Texas — Another Australian is off to a fast start at the Houston Open.

Cameron Percy shot a 5-under 67 late Thursday afternoon to tie Kevin Stadler for the first-round lead and extend a streak at the tournament for players from Down Under. An Aussie has led or shared the first-round lead in Houston every year since 2006, when the event moved to the Tournament Course at Redstone.

Six Australians have won a total of eight Houston Opens, including Stuart Appleby in 2006 and Adam Scott in ’07. Appleby also won in 1999, and Bruce Crampton won twice (1973 and 1975).

Percy, a Tour rookie, would be more of a long shot, considering some of the big names in the field. Percy arrived in Houston ranked 173rd in putting average and the extra practice on the green this week paid off on Thursday.

“A friend of mine sat me down Tuesday, he looks at my stats,” Percy said. “He said, ’Cam, you’ve got to do something about your putting. It’s just woeful, only 70 per cent, maybe from 3 feet.’ I spent hours and hours on the putting green Tuesday and Wednesday, and it’s made a little difference”

Stadler took advantage of an early tee time and posted his 67 more than an hour before Percy teed off.

Vaughn Taylor and James Driscoll — Stadler’s playing partners in a morning threesome — were a stroke back along with fellow morning starter Kevin Sutherland and Anthony Kim, who played in the afternoon when the wind picked up.

“I thought it was going to die down,” Percy said, “but it never did.”

Phil Mickelson, Padraig Harrington, Lee Westwood and Scott topped a group two strokes back at 69.

Ernie Els, coming off consecutive victories at Doral and Bay Hill, opened with 70. Fred Couples, who has won three straight starts on the Champions Tour, shot a 71. Chris Baryla of Vernon, B.C., and Graham De Laet of Weyburn, Sask., also shot 71.

Several top players have come to Houston because they view the Tournament Course at Redstone as an ideal dry run for next week’s Masters. Organizers have groomed the 7,457-yard layout to simulate the conditions at Augusta National, with fast greens, shaved mounds, light rough and the fairways mowed toward the tee.

But Harrington said now that the tournament has started, the players are focused on winning more than fine-tuning their games.

“It’s all about trying to win the Houston Open,” he said. “Augusta can wait three more days.”

Harrington said he played conservatively after a disappointing session on the practice range. He made three straight birdies on the back nine, playing his best after the wind picked up in the early afternoon.

“I was never quite sure of myself,” he said. “I was happy to play the golf I played. I made the most of my opportunities when they came around. I just wasn’t very confident.”

Kim was tied for the lead after making three straight birdies on his back nine, then finished with an adventurous bogey on the difficult 18th.

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