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Journeyman Dawson leading; defending champ Leonard close

With the season running short and facing the prospect of returning to qualifying school yet again, Marco Dawson shot a 7-under-par 64 to grab the first-round lead at the Texas Open.

Dawson, who has fought back from surgery last year to repair a ruptured disc in his back, had a bogey-free round at the La Cantera Golf Club on Thursday.

Defending champion Justin Leonard and Jay Williamson were a shot off the lead, while Scott McCarron, Carl Paulson, Bob Burns and Brandel Chamblee were at 5-under.

Even with the Ryder Cup matches postponed until next year, the tournament drew just a handful of the game’s biggest names and only three Ryder Cup players: Sweden’s Jesper Parnevik and Americans David Toms and Hal Sutton.

Parnevik led the trio with a 67, while Sutton had a 69 and Toms a 74.

The Texas Open is typically a late season stop for players vying for position on the money list, a scenario Leonard and Dawson know well.

“I was there seven years ago,” Leonard said of his 15th place finish here in 1994 that earned him a money-list exemption for the next year. “I know exactly what those guys are going through.”

Guys like Dawson.

Dawson was given a medical extension for the tour this year after his surgery in May 2000. The extension required him to earn dlrs 346,785 in his first 20 tournaments this year.

Through 14 events this season, he’s about dlrs 200,000 short. His best finish was a tie for 16th at the Shell Houston Open in April.

Dawson turned pro in 1986. He’s never won on the PGA Tour and had to go through qualifying school in ‘91, ‘92 and ‘94.

“I’ve been there too many times,” he said.

But it was the back injury that discouraged him the most.

“I couldn’t walk. I couldn’t sit down. All I could do was lie down,” before he finally decided to have surgery, Dawson said.

He didn’t stay down long. He was on his feet a day after the operation and walking around the golf course within 72 hours.

“From that point on, I was working to get back out here,” Dawson said.

Walking the hills and valleys of the 6,371-meter (7,001 yard) La Cantera course didn’t bother him Thursday. Starting on the front nine, Dawson did the most damage in the middle of his round, with birdies on Nos. 8, 9, 10 in his best round of the year.

“I drove the ball well today and putted well. That’s pretty much what it comes down to every week,” Dawson said.

A Dallas native and former player at the University of Texas, Leonard enjoyed the biggest gallery of the day. He made the turn in 4-under. He followed a bogey on No. 11 with a 7.5-meter (25-foot) eagle putt on the 446-meter (490 yard) par-5 14th to challenge for the lead.

“It probably helped that I played in the afternoon. I had some scores to shoot for,” said Leonard, who held a share of the first-round lead last year before cruising to a five-shot victory.

“All that defending champion stuff, that’s Tuesday and Wednesday,” Leonard said. “I got into the round today and just basically left last year’s tournament behind.”

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