- The Washington Times - Friday, June 6, 2003

Robert Gamez is on a physical and emotional bender known as the Capital Coaster.

Less than 24 hours after a lip-out cost him a berth in next week’s U.S. Open, Gamez exorcised his frustrations at TPC at Avenel yesterday, riding some spectacular ball striking to an opening 66 and claim a one-stroke lead in the Capital Open.

“It was hard to get out of bed this morning. This is my eighth week in a row playing, and I’m tired,” said Gamez, who didn’t get to play a practice round at Avenel because of the rain-delayed U.S. Open qualifier at Woodmont Country Club that extended into Wednesday. “I lost in a playoff [in the qualifier]. I lipped out a 10-footer on the first hole that would have gotten me in, and then I made a bogey on the second hole to get knocked out.

“I was a little upset last night, a little disappointed. I didn’t get on the range this morning until 7:40a.m. for my 8:03 tee time. But when I got to the tee, I got fired up because I love this golf course.”

The 34-year-old Las Vegas native certainly played like it. Taking advantage of the tour’s decision to implement a lift-clean-and-place policy at muddy Avenel for the first two rounds, Gamez hit 15 greens and carded seven birdies on the 7,005-yard track, posting a 5-under total he said could have been even better.

“We had the ball in our hand, so we basically got to cheat around here today,” said Gamez, who stands a stroke clear of major champion Rich Beem and four-time tour winner Notah Begay. “I left about three or four shots out there. … I missed a couple of short birdie putts on the two par-5s on the front nine, and I had a three-putt on No.4.

“I really thought the golf course played easy today. It played long, but the greens are soft, so you can fly the ball right at the hole. And the greens are the best I’ve ever seen them. It was a pleasure to putt on them today.”

Over the last decade, Gamez hasn’t often had much fun with the flat stick. After stunning the golf world en route to Rookie of the Year honors in 1990 by winning in his professional debut (Tucson Open) and adding another victory a month later (Nestle Invitational), Gamez began a slow fade into obscurity. Struggling primarily with his putting, he hasn’t won in the dozen years since, never finishing higher than 44th on the money list in a career that seemed destined to serve as a case study in unfulfilled expectations.

But thanks in large part to a switch to the belly putter here last year, Gamez finally seems to be returning to his rookie form. He has seven top-25s this season, including a silver at last month’s inaugural Wachovia Championship, and ranks 25th on the money list ($1,084,096).

“I switched to the belly putter, and it’s changed everything,” Gamez said of his renaissance. “I started being more aggressive, putted better, and my confidence came back. You play out here with confidence, and you’re going to do pretty well.”

Few men show up at Avenel with more confidence than Beem, who added a runner-up finish last year to his memorable breakout victory here in 1999.

“Ever since I had the success my first year out here, I just like the golf course,” said Beem, who also has switched putters this week, returning to the STX model that helped him win the International and PGA Championship in consecutive weeks last season. “I think it suits a more aggressive style of play, which is what I like to do. I like the atmosphere. Basically, I like everything about being up here.”

There were a pair of aggressive headliners who didn’t fare as well on the water-logged track yesterday. World No.6 Phil Mickelson continued to fight an erratic driver, spraying his way to an ugly 75. And former world No.1 David Duval (74), who has made just two cuts this season, wasted a start that included five birdies on his first six holes by bumbling through the middle six holes of his round.

All told, 37 players managed to best par on a day that seemed nearly perfect for scoring. Among those lurking in red numbers behind Gamez, Beem and Begay are dangerous proven champions like 1999 British Open winner Paul Lawrie (68), past PGA Championship victors Hal Sutton (68) and Davis Love (70) and European stalwarts Padraig Harrington (70) and Bernhard Langer (70).

Despite the seemingly benign conditions, however, none of the 156 players managed to post the kind of eye-popping opener which has defined past tournaments.

“I think one of the biggest misconceptions about a day like today is the fact that we’ve got ball in hand in the fairway makes it easy,” said Begay after posting the day’s only bogey-free round. “The majority of players are hitting one or two more clubs into these greens. So I think that the two things offset each other. … It’s seriously long and soggy out there.”

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