OWINGS MILLS, Md. -- Winning the NFL Classic earlier this month did more for James Mason than merely earn him a long-awaited exemption on the Senior PGA Tour.
"I was able to pay all the bills. That was the big thing," Mason said Thursday, moments after making six birdies and shooting a 3-under 68 in the opening round of the U.S. Senior Open.
Mason ran up heavy numbers on the American Express and MasterCard accounts while driving from city to city as a Monday qualifier. That lifestyle ended June 2, when he earned $195,000 first-place money in the NFL Classic.
Before that, his best finish was a tie for 38th. Mason credits a change in attitude for the resurgence in his game.
"My wife has certainly helped me a lot with the mental side of the game," he said. "I'm just believing more in myself, believing that I can play. I knew I had the game, I just didn't bring it to the right level."
Mason's round Thursday included a double-bogey on No. 6, but two holes later he barely missed his 12th career hole-in-one from 196 yards.
"I hit a 6-iron 2 inches right of the hole," he said. "It looked good from the tee. It was almost in there."
Mason, who started at 7:15 a.m. on the 10th tee, was off the course before many of the other golfers even started.
"I really love to be in the leadoff group," he said. "You get to play at your own pace and you don't have to wait."
VALUED WIN: Tom Kite, who was 3-under after 16 holes when play was suspending by lightning Thursday, has done enough during his illustrious career to survive without winning a U.S. Senior Open.
But he sure wouldn't mind adding another accomplishment to the list.
"It would be below the U.S. Open, for sure, but it wouldn't be below too many other things," he said.
Kite listed his career highlights as winning the 1992 U.S. Open, being named captain of the 1997 Ryder Cup team, his first win on the PGA Tour (in 1976) and his initial victory as a junior golfer, at age 11.
"All those things rank up there, but if we can go into the future and have me win one of those Senior Opens, that would rank very high on that list," he said.
THORPE IN THE HUNT: Were it not for an erratic putter, Jim Thorpe would have shot much better than a 1-under 70 on Thursday.
"I didn't putt the ball well at all," he said.
Thorpe didn't have more than two putts on any green, but lamented over a few near misses that cost him birdies, including a 10-footer on No. 10.
After botching the putt, he received some unwanted criticism from a fan in the gallery.
"He said, 'Oh, come on, you've got to make it,"' Thorpe said. "And I said, 'Don't you think I'm trying?"' It's not like I'm trying to miss these putts."
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