Austin in the Hunt After Last Year's Slow Start June 26, 2015 | Sacramento, Calif. By Dave Shedloski

Woody Austin finished tied for third after a slow start to his U.S. Senior Open debut in 2014. He made sure he didn't lose ground early this week. (USGA/Matt Sullivan)

A slow start cost Woody Austin a chance to win the 2014 U.S. Senior Open at Oak Tree National in Edmond, Okla. He wasn’t about to make the same mistake this year at Del Paso Country Club.

Austin opened with a 3-under 67, then shot even-par 70 in Friday’s morning wave, finishing his day two strokes out of the lead as the rest of the field teed off in the afternoon rounds. His Thursday 67 was the only score among the day’s top seven that was submitted from the more difficult afternoon wave, which easily could have been referred to as the “heat wave” after temperatures soared past 100 degrees.

“It was important to shoot in the red. I screwed that up last year,” Austin said late Thursday afternoon after wrapping up the first round one stroke behind Tom Watson. “Last year, the easy day, everybody's shooting 65, and that was my worst round last year. So, I needed to make sure I didn't make that mistake again this year when I needed to get after it on the easy day. I didn't fall back.”

Austin opened the championship a year ago with a 1-over 72, tied for 29th place and then spent the rest of the week trying to catch up. He never did and had to settle for a tie for third while Colin Montgomerie took the title after beating Gene Sauers in a playoff.

He didn’t get many putts to drop, but an even-par 70 with two birdies and two bogeys was a solid showing, given the course’s difficult setup.

“I like it when it's tough,” Austin said. “I hang in there a lot better than when I see a bunch of guys shooting a lot of low numbers. So, it was important for me to go play good when it was an easy day.”

Austin, 51, of Derby, Kan., wasn’t a frequent winner on the PGA Tour, capturing four titles, but he was a survivor despite a history of putting struggles. His ball-striking always ranked among the top tier, which kept him competitive, even as he neared Champions Tour eligibility.

His final victory, in the 2013 Sanderson Farms Championship, came 18 years after his first, in the 1995 Buick Open.

He still seeks his first win on the Champions Tour, though he has come close, including a third-place showing in the Senior PGA Championship last month. Mixed in with eight starts so far on the senior circuit is another 11 on the PGA Tour. It’s safe to say no one on the Champions Tour has played more golf than Austin this year.

“It's a good way to get myself ready for coming out here, because I play out there and I wear out my 3-iron and my rescue and my hybrid and my 4-iron,” said Austin of playing on the PGA Tour. “Then I come out here and I'm hitting 8-iron, 9-iron, makes me feel better.”

The club that continues to make him feel less good is the putter. He lamented his inability to take advantage of the many birdie opportunities he set up with his ball-striking, which has been a strength throughout his career. As he missed one final putt on Friday, he slapped the face of his putter with an open palm in frustration. The frustration was compounded by the fact that he thought he played better on Friday than he did on Thursday.

“I'm very frustrated. But that's my game, unfortunately,” he said, shrugging. “That's why I said I need a U.S. Open, because I need my putter not to cost me as much as it does in a regular event. It cost me today, but I might only still be three or four back, whereas in a regular tournament, I'd be down the road.

Instead, he’s in the thick of a very crowded race.

“Like I said, that's the great thing about a U.S. Open. Anything in the red [is good], unless somebody plays, you know, out of their head,” Austin said. “But the problem is I should be trying to separate myself from the field, not still be two and three shots behind. I should be winning. I should be leading, not following. Again, that's disappointing.”

That’s golf, really. Especially U.S. Open golf. But remember this, he likes it tough.

Dave Shedloski is an Ohio-based freelance writer whose work regularly appears on USGA websites.

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