There is something about the Hobbit's Glen Golf Club in Columbia that seems to suit Christy O'Connor's game. There is something about the setting for the State Farm Senior Classic that seems to make O'Connor think he is back home in Ireland.
O'Connor shot a 6-under par 66 in yesterday's opening round, one stroke higher than he did last year when he went wire-to-wire in winning his first Senior PGA Tour event and two shots higher than first-round leader Jose Maria Canizares of Spain.
"I just love the place," O'Connor said, repeating his comments from earlier this week. "You could find this in inland Ireland. I really don't feel so far from home."
Playing with Bruce Fleisher, whom he beat by a stroke in a terrific final-round shootout last year, O'Connor's first shot was a drive into the left rough. But he recovered to make par and then strung together four straight birdies beginning on the par-5 third hole.
The last of those birdies came on a 75-foot putt on the par-4 sixth hole. It followed his only disappointing moment, when he missed a 5-footer for eagle on the par-5 fifth.
"I holed an absolute battleship, from one end of the green to the other," said O'Connor, 51. "That kind of made up for the last one."
O'Connor attributed his good start in part to playing with Fleisher, the tour's second-leading money-winner this year. Coming off a disappointing finish at last week's U.S. Open, when he blew a two- stroke lead going into the final round and lost to Hale Irwin by three, Fleisher shot 2-under 70 yesterday.
"He's got a good solid game and he drags you along with him," O'Connor said.
Considering that O'Connor has played his four tournament rounds at Hobbit's Glen in 24-under-par, it doesn't appear that he needs much help. Not only does O'Connor know his way around the course, but he certainly knows his way to the press tent for post- round interviews.
"It's a nice place to be," he said. "I hope I'm here Sunday night."
Has health, and then some
Leonard Thompson, who finished with a 5-under 67, has played a lot better in the past two months than he did in the first four months this season.
Among Thompson's five Top 10 finishes in a stretch of five events was a tie for third two weeks ago at the Cadillac NFL Golf Club and a fifth the week before at the SBC Championship.
"I wasn't very healthy early in the year," said Thompson, 53, who has won once on the Senior PGA Tour after winning three times on the regular tour. "Now I've got more energy."
Thompson won't disclose the nature of his illness, and got a little testy yesterday when asked.
"You don't need to know that," he said. "It's none of your business."