STATELINE — Mark Mulder always seems to be on the cusp of contending for an American Century Championship title as evidenced by his three top-10 finishes in the last three years.
This year, he hopes to break down the door and become a winner.
Mulder, the former left-handed Major League pitcher with the St. Louis Cardinals and Oakland Athletics, totaled 26 points Friday to share the first-round lead with two-time champion Jack Wagner on a pristine day at Lake Tahoe.
A stroke back at 25 points is Billy Joe Tolliver, and Jacksonville Jaguars kicker Josh Scobee is another point back at 24. Former tennis star Mardy Fish and former baseball great Eric Gagne are tied for fifth at 22 points. Rick Rhoden, the eight-time champion, is tied for sixth at 21 points along with former Green Bay great Sterling Sharpe, ex-Atlanta Braves pitcher John Smoltz, Vinny Del Negro and Chad Pfeifer and Rodney Gorman, past winners of the Warrior Open.
“I’m pleased with it,” said Mulder. “I was looking for 20-something today instead of 15 or 16. I think I’ve started 23 or 24 before. I’m looking to win it. It will be disappointing if I don’t.”
Mulder credits his great round to excellent play on the front nine (his back nine). He birdied five of his final nine holes.
“I started on 10 today and couldn’t get anything going on the back nine,” he said. “I birdied 5, 6, 7 and 8 and kind of got it going. So I was very pleased to get the back nine going and to finish at 26.”
Wagner, the only wire-to-wire winner in tournament history (2011), said a first-hole birdie gave him a lot of confidence.
Wagner’s first tee shot landed in the left fairway bunker. He blasted out to about 12 feet and then drained a downhill putt for a quick three points.
“This is either going to be a double bogey … and I hit it really good (out of the trap), right at the pin, and wound up making birdie there,” he said. “That, for me confidence-wise, was a big thing. I didn’t birdie any of the par 5s today. I birdied weird holes that you don’t normally think you’re going to birdie, that was the day for me.”
Wagner had four birdies (1, 9, 10 and 17) and 14 pars. He said course knowledge and patience are keys in this tournament.
“I think Billy Joe (Tolliver) said it best,” Wagner said. “The guys that have played here the most, I think, have a bit of an edge as opposed to some of the newer guys, because, I think Billy will agree with me, when you’re hitting a lot of wedges and sand wedges like we are, 9-irons, you’ve got to just accept you’re going to hit it 20 feet (away) a lot,” Wagner said. “So seriously, you just have to be patient and know that sometimes you’re going to hit it in 10 feet, and you’re only going to make probably one out of three or four of those.
“So it’s a level of patience out here, and that’s usually guys that are there Sunday, they’ve been able to scrape it around and grind it out enough.”
Tolliver, a four-time winner of the event, said despite his score he was up and down during his round.
“Twenty-five points to start the tournament off, I’m not disappointed,” Tolliver said. “I’ll sit in the clubhouse for the next two days if you’ll give me 25 each day and we’ll just see what happens at 75. The golf course is in great shape; greens are really good. So I don’t know if 75 will get it, though.
“Well, I started on the back nine first and played the front nine poorly at the turn when it slowed down. Pace of play on the back where we started was great. You never waited a shot. (Mark) Mulder and Eric (Gagne) were off and running. It was a really good pace. Then we made the turn, it slowed down. And give me time to think about anything and I will screw it up. So I’ve got to figure out how to not think about golf when I’m waiting and then get into it.”
Tolliver, who estimated he made the turn in 32, made some good par putts which are like gold in the Stableford format. He had birdies at 4, 13, 15, 16 and 18. He also had three bogeys.
“But like I said, I got in a rhythm today and it was good,” Tolliver said. “I hit a lot of quality shots to start out with, and you learn something about yourself every time you pull a club back.”
Tolliver said he doesn’t worry about the competition after one day. He did say the fields are getting better and better every year.
“Well, you really don’t think too much about them on Friday,” he said. “You’re kind of sweating your own game, positioning yourself because you can’t win it on Friday but you can lose it. Just stay right in there and try to keep it bunched up.
“The field has gotten deeper and there’s a lot of good players. So it used to be before you would go out there, try to position yourself on Friday and try to move on Saturday. Well, now you’re just trying to position yourself every day until you get to the back nine Sunday, because the guys are so good. Everybody’s going to stay right there.”
Scobee recorded five birdies en route to a solid start in his second ACC appearance. He had 20 points in last year’s opening round.
“Scobee is a heck of a player,” Tolliver said. “I’ve played a lot of golf with Scobee.”
Rhoden, after a slow start on the front side, scored 14 points on the back nine to get high on the leaderboard. Seven of his eight ACC wins have come in odd-numbered years, so don’t count him out.