CROMWELL, CONN. -- Perplexed with his putting, Charles Howell was humbled by his initial professional outing.
The Augusta native shot a 1-over-par 71 in Thursday's opening round of the Greater Hartford Open.
Howell relinquished his amateur status three days ago and discovered the pro realm to be deceptively treacherous.
"I'm glad it's over with," said Howell, who is playing on a sponsor's exemption. "I was a little nervous to start off with, but I think that's normal. That's a good thing. I think if you're not a little bit nervous out there, you're in trouble."
Undisputedly the nation's preeminent college golfer, Howell struggled to remain in the top 100 Thursday. The collegiate player of the year and NCAA champion recorded a double-bogey 6 on No. 1. Howell birdied the par-five sixth to stay within seven shots of four co-leaders, who completed the round 6 under.
Despite being tied for 99th place with 20 others, including Scott Hoch and Steve Elkington, Howell was optimistic heading into today's second round. A repeat of his pair of phenomenal 63s in last week's Greensboro Open could propel the 21-year-old back into contention, but first he'll have to make the weekend cut.
"I hit the ball good all day," said Howell, who led Oklahoma State to the national championship as a junior on June 3. "I had the chance to shoot really low if I would have made some more putts on the back nine, but I played well."
Howell began his first professional event with seven consecutive pars starting on the back nine. A bogey on the par-four 17th put the Westminster Prep product 1 over. He birdied No. 18 and began the front nine even.
Hoping to avoid qualifying school, Howell needs to take advantage of the seven sponsor's exemptions he is entitled. The former Oklahoma State Cowboy will earn his PGA Card for 2001 if he finishes in the top 125 of the money list.
Craig E. Spence is currently 125th with earnings of $183,731. Howell is feeling the pressure not only to play well but to rapidly acquire a bankroll. The Greater Hartford Open winner will receive $504,000 of the $2.8 million purse.
"It's a little different playing out here as a pro," Howell said.
How quickly Howell adapts to the intricacies of the pro game will determine his fate on the PGA Tour. Tour veterans Davis Love III and Justin Leonard offered Howell survival tips earlier in the week.
"These guys ... they all played college golf, so they know what it's like," Howell said. "They're here to help you out and they've helped me."
In 1997, Howell participated in the Greater Hartford Open but missed the cut after shooting 75-72.
Sergio Garcia began defense of his Irish Open title with a 7-under-par 64 to share the first-round lead with Patrik Sjoland.
Taking advantage of calm morning conditions on the Ballybunion links in southwest Ireland, the 20-year-old Spaniard fired eight birdies with one bogey.
Sjoland also had eight birdies, including four in his first five holes after starting at the 10th.
Garcia holed from 30 feet at the ninth, his last hole, and his only lapse came at the fifth (his 14th), where he missed the green and missed a 4-foot putt.
Sjoland, of Sweden, battling the flu and a bad night's sleep, made a 15-foot birdie at the 10th. His short game then took over and he made just one more long putt, from 12 feet at the fifth.
Spaniard Miguel Angel Jimenez, the U.S. Open runner-up, did withdraw with flu after three bogeys in his first five holes.
Irishman Des Smyth holed a 135-yard 9-iron for an eagle 2 at the 13th and shared third place at 65 with Johan Skold of Sweden, Lucas Parsons of Australia and Englishman Ian Garbutt.
Irishman Padraig Harrington was at 67 but other big names suffered as the wind sprang up in the afternoon. Darren Clarke shot 72 and Jose Maria Olazabal putted poorly for a 73.
This is Garcia's final event before he goes to St. Andrews in three weeks for the British Open. A year ago, when the Open was at Carnoustie, Garcia finished last at 89-83.