- The Washington Times - Friday, June 23, 2006

Few could have expected Jose Coceres to be in contention at the Booz Allen Classic at this time last week. After all, Coceres himself didn’t even expect to be at the TPC at Avenel.

The 42-year-old shot a 7-under 64 and enters the second round two shots behind leader Ben Curtis in only his fourth tournament of the season.

Coceres is playing this week on an exemption granted to past champions on tour, though he wasn’t exactly sure of the method in which he made it to Avenel. He practiced about two hours last week in his native Argentina, then gave his manager a call on Friday.

“He said ‘You’re in the tournament’ and I said ‘What?’ ” Coceres recalled. “‘You’re in the tournament.’ I said ‘Yeah? OK!’ I go practice Saturday, Sunday, Monday, Tuesday here, Wednesday and today.”

Coceres won at Hilton Head and Disney in his first year on tour in 2001 after more than a decade in Europe, but has struggled since then. He’s cracked the top 125 of the money list only once since his rookie year, and slid to 182nd a year ago.

That forced him to attend the tour’s qualifying school, where he found himself disinterested. In the middle of the six-round event, he packed up and left.

“After Q-school, I didn’t want to play more golf,” Coceres said. “I wanted to spend time with my family. I didn’t feel like I wanted to stay here and play. Now I’m ready to go, so now I’m hoping to get invitations for down the road.”

Coceres hasn’t received many opportunities so far this year, but he did tie for ninth at the Verizon Heritage at Hilton Head in April. A top-10 finish could significantly vault him up the money list, and perhaps create attention to earn berths in other tournaments.

Of course, a victory would provide him a two-year exemption, and with it the freedom to spend plenty of time at home without worrying about retaining his tour card.

“I would like to maybe win one time this year for next year [so it’s easier] to open up dates,” Coceres said. “This is good for me.”

Huston’s highs and lows

Veteran John Huston was one of the first players on the course and reached 7-under before struggling to finish with a 67.

It was Huston’s best round since another 67 at the Bob Hope Classic in January, and set him up to make a cut for the first time since Bay Hill in mid-March.

“I’m at the end and I have no problem with that,” said Huston, who owns seven career PGA Tour titles but just one in the last six seasons. “I certainly don’t have the game that I once did. But I still think that on days like today when I get it going, it feels like I can still do it.”

The 45-year-old sandwiched two birdies — one a 25-yard chip — around a 30-foot eagle putt at No. 13 to get to 7-under, but promptly rattled off three straight bogeys to slide back to 4-under.

“I was driving the ball really well and the second shot on 15, I just hit a poor shot and missed the green in an impossible spot,” Huston said. “After that, it just seemed like I never really hit another good shot.”

Chip-ins

Padraig Harrington, the highest ranked player in the field at No. 23, opened with a 1-under 70. Takoma Park native Fred Funk shot 71. … Naval Academy grad Billy Hurley III shot 77. Former Florida star Matt Every, who won the 2006 Ben Hogan Award as the nation’s top collegiate golfer, had a 75 in his first professional round.

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