MILWAUKEE -- Skip Kendall fulfilled his father's deathbed wish Thursday, playing in the Greater Milwaukee Open on his home course less than 24 hours after Ralph Kendall died at 77 from complications of a stroke.
Acknowledging condolences on every hole, Kendall shot a 2-over-par 73 on what he called the hardest day of his life.
"It was pretty difficult," Kendall said. "This tournament was really special to him. I know he's looking down and smiling."
Jay Haas, 47, who won the GMO 20 years ago at Tuckaway Country Club, tinkered with his putting and took the first-round lead with a 7-under 64, a stroke ahead of D.A. Weibring, Marco Dawson and Brent Geiberger.
Defending champion Loren Roberts, who had a record 24-under 260 total last year, had hoped a return to Brown Deer Park would cure his ailing game, but he shot a 74.
"I've played poorly, in stark contrast to last year when I played beautifully," Roberts said. "I haven't played good at all. There's a problem and I can't find it."
Unless he dramatically improves his game Friday, Roberts won't make the cut in the tournament he dominated a year ago. The field of 154 will be cut to the low 70 and ties after the second round.
Haas received some putting tips on the practice green Wednesday from Stan Utley, an alternate in the tournament.
"It was pretty magical today," Haas said. "I missed a couple of putts that I should have made, but I made four or five that were 1-in-20 chances, maybe.
"I didn't hit my irons great, but I hit them solid. I didn't hit every green, but when I missed, I managed to miss in the correct spot, I guess."
The par-71 course with notoriously thick rough measures 6,759 yards, one of the shortest on the PGA Tour, so it puts a premium on iron play and putting.
And Haas closed with 169 feet worth of birdie putts, including a 35-footer on the eighth hole as he finished the front nine at 5-under.
Haas said his putting had been off just enough to defy a simple solution.
"I hadn't been putting terribly, but I just hadn't made anything," he said. "A lot of two-putting, master of the two putts from 18 feet."
So, he went to Utley, who changed his grip, tweaked his motion and switched his ball "along with a lot of secret stuff I can't give out," Haas cracked.
Nick Gilliam, the NCAA champion from the University of Florida and a Green Bay native, shot a 70 in his professional debut.
"I battled the jitters for the first few holes, but I settled down nicely," Gilliam said. "I only hit four fairways, so that's a little upsetting. But all in all, a pretty good day. A good start to my career, I'd say."
Gilliam won the Wisconsin state junior title at Brown Deer in 1994.
Kendall, from Fox Point, grew up playing Brown Deer, one of only three municipal golf courses on the PGA Tour. He used to gauge his progress on whether he could clear the creek on the 18th hole with a good drive that would allow him to go for the green in two.
Kendall said he thought of his father, who taught him the game, "every second" Thursday and didn't once blame his erratic round of his grief.
Kendall was called off the course Wednesday during the pro am and told that his father had died in Sun City West, Ariz. He told his mother, Shirley, that he'd be on the next flight out, but she informed him that her father's final wish was that he play the GMO.
So, Kendall bought his mother a ticket to Milwaukee, where services will be held next week.
Any other tournament and he would have withdrawn, Kendall said. But knowing this was his father's final request gave him all the resolve he needed.
Kendall said the outpouring of well-wishers actually made it harder, however.
"He was well-liked and well-known and when you've got everybody every second saying, `Condolences,' that makes it even tougher," Kendall said.
"Golf is definitely secondary today, in the back of what's important in life. He's been sick for a long time, it was a blessing in that way. I'm sure he's very much at peace."
Divots: Weibring's clubs were stolen at the airport in Cleveland last month and he had struggled at his last two tournaments before getting new shafts Wednesday afternoon. "This was the first round where I had a lineup of clubs I could enjoy," Weibring said. "It was nice to have some familiar-feeling shafts and clubs to play with."
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