Howell takes first round lead at Reno-Tahoe Open, five others within two shots of lead

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RENO -- Last year was Charles Howell's first year playing PGA Tour events, but it wasn't enough for him to finish fourth at the Reno-Tahoe Open. At the time, Howell was disappointed with the result, especially since he started the final round just two shots back of leader Jerry Kelly.

On Thursday, though, it was obvious that Howell, one of the youngest and brightest stars on the tour, is back to win what could be the last year of the RTO.

The 23-year-old former Oklahoma State star, who narrowly missed qualifying for the World Golf Championships-NEC Invitational, shot a 7-under 65 to take the first round lead at Montreux Golf and Country Club.

"I got off to a good start today," said Howell, who played the front nine at 5-under. "I thought I played a little more aggressively today. The golf course played fairly easy. I still say the toughest thing out there is reading the greens. All I did was take advantage of calm conditions."

John Rollins, Tom Pernice Jr. and J.L. Lewis are both one shot back of Howell at 6-under. Lewis had a 20-foot eagle putt on No. 9 for a chance at a share of the lead, but instead birdied. And Pernice, at 42, almost seems out of place in a leader board of mostly youngsters.

Ben Crane, Luke Donald, Eduardo Herrera and Stephen Allan are all two shots back at 4-under. It was a superb start for Rollins, though, who has played a heavy schedule this year on the PGA Tour after spending the entire 2001 season on the Tour.

"I played pretty solid all day," said Rollins, who has made the cut in 18 of the 24 tournaments he's played in. "I've played well all year. My swing is there and I've given myself opportunities. I putted better today than I have the past month."

Howell was hoping a good finish at last week's PGA Championship would get him into the top 50 in the official world golf rankings, which would then qualify him for the NEC Invitational being held this weekend at Sahalee C.C. in Sammamish, Wash. Howell finished in a tie for 17th at the PGA, which put him at 58th in the latest official world golf rankings, but that hasn't changed his mind set coming into the 4th annual RTO.

"Coming off the PGA, I thought I had a really good chance there," said Howell, who's still looking for his first ever tour win. "It's a little more laid back here, but I attempt to have the same mind set every week."

Most of the leaders all took advantage of prime scoring conditions at Montreux, a course notorious for its afternoon winds. Howell and his chasers, all except Pernice Jr. and Lewis, all had morning tee times and the wind didn't really pick up until late afternoon. The windier conditions didn't stop Kaname Yokoo, who had an afternoon tee time, and was at 6-under after 11 holes before eventually finishing at even par.

Last year, the NEC Invitational only took the top 35 players in the world golf rankings. This year, it took the top 50, which then left a thin field of well-known players for the RTO. And the first-round leader board certainly reflected that.

Crane only earned his tour card by finishing fifth at last year's PGA Tour Qualifying Tournament and Allan earned his exempt status by finishing 19th in the same tournament. Crane, though, has had a solid year on tour, with his best finish being second at the Byron Nelson Classic.

"I had high expectations coming into this week, however my putting was suspect," said Crane, who made six birdies and one bogey during his round on Thursday. "The greens are perfect and I really like the course. The wind wasn't much of a factor, it was definitely a good morning for scoring."

Rollins earned his tour card after finishing sixth on the Tour in 2001. His best finish this year was fifth at the Bell South Classic. Rollins does have nine top-25 finishes and five top-10s this year.

"I've played some stretches of six (tournaments) in a row but I've kind of paced myself well," Rollins said. "The Tour was a great learning experience for me. This year, I've kind of built on that."

Crane, a 1999 University of Oregon graduate, could have been in the clubhouse at 6-under with Rollins. He nearly holed his third shot out of the bunker on the par-5 4th, which would've given him an eagle. He also nearly had an ace on No. 2, with his 8-iron shot from 180 yards out landing six inches from the cup.

"I like playing at altitude, it makes you feel like Tiger Woods," Crane joked.

Howell, who has three top-10 finishes this year, also started fast. He birdied Nos. 1 and 3 and Nos. 8 and 9. Both Rollins and Crane birdied three-straight holes on Thursday to get their rounds going.


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