(Reuters) - Former champion and ‘local’ favorite Zach Johnson charged into a share of the lead with a sizzling, bogey-free display in Thursday’s opening round of the John Deere Classic in Silvis, Illinois.
Winner of the PGA Tour event in 2012, the 38-year-old fired an eight-under-par 63 in ideal scoring conditions at the TPC Deere Run to end a sunny day level with fellow American Brian Harman and South African Rory Sabbatini.
Johnson, with his driving and renowned short game in sparkling order, covered his outward nine in an explosive six-under 30 to raise thoughts of a possible 59 but he picked up just two more shots after the turn.
Americans Todd Hamilton and William McGirt, and Australian Steve Bowditch, opened with 64s while Zimbabwe’s Brendon de Jonge and Americans Kevin Tway, David Toms and Robert Streb carded 65s in the final PGA Tour event before next week’s British Open.
Johnson, who was born just 90 miles away in Cedar Rapids, Iowa and has recorded top-three finishes in four of his last five starts in his “hometown” event, was delighted with his opening round.
”Extremely pleased,“ the 11-times PGA Tour winner told Golf Channel.”The word of the day for (his caddie) Lance (Bennett) and me was opportunity and I had a lot of opportunities.
”I missed just three greens but I putted on two of them. So I put myself into position to make birdies, I put myself into position basically to eliminate the big numbers, certainly even a bogey.
“Everything was really solid,” said Johnson, who hit 14 of 14 fairways. “I drove it great, a couple of iron shots I’d like to have back but nothing significant. I actually had a couple more putts that could have dropped but I‘m not complaining.”
Asked whether he had thoughts of shooting a 59 after getting to eight under after 11 holes, Johnson replied: ”It hit me. I‘m like, ‘How many holes have we played, how many under am I?’ That kind of thing.
”But over shots and in the routine of shots - nothing. I hit a lot of really, really good shots that ended up probably 20, 25 feet away but this course, you’ve got to respect it.
“There are some (pin) placements out there where it’s hard to be aggressive at. I had some (birdie) looks certainly on eight and five that came up a little bit curvy. But, for the most part, it was really solid.”
Johnson, who clinched his only major title at the 2007 Masters, is seeking his second PGA Tour victory of the year, having won the Hyundai Tournament of Champions in January.
American Jordan Spieth, who won last year’s John Deere Classic in his rookie season to become at 19 the youngest player to triumph on the PGA Tour since 1931, launched his title defense with a 71.
Hunting his second career victory on the U.S. circuit, Spieth was two over for the day with three holes remaining but birdied the 16th and 17th to finish eight strokes off the pace.
Reporting by Mark Lamport-Stokes in Los Angeles; Editing by Frank Pingue/Greg Stutchbury