(Reuters) - Long-hitting American Ricky Barnes made a welcome return to form after two months of struggle as he charged into an early two-shot lead in Thursday’s opening round of the Zurich Classic of New Orleans in Avondale, Louisiana.
The 32-year-old, who is bidding for his first victory on the PGA Tour, took advantage of receptive, rain-softened conditions at the TPC Louisiana to fire a sizzling eight-under-par 64.
With players permitted to lift, clean and replace golf balls on the fairway after more than an inch of rain had saturated the layout on Wednesday, Barnes birdied six of his last eight holes to set a red-hot pace.
Also making the most of low-scoring conditions were D.A. Points, who opened with a seven-birdie 66, and fellow American Charlie Beljan, who carded a 67.
Defending champion Jason Dufner, who won last year’s title in a playoff with veteran South African Ernie Els, launched his defense with a level-par 70.
Barnes, however, commanded the early spotlight as he shrugged off memories of seven missed cuts in his last eight starts on the PGA Tour after beginning the season in reasonably good form.
He eagled the par-five second before reaching the turn in two-under 34, then stormed home in six-under 30 to surge to the top of the leaderboard.
“It was good today,” Barnes told Golf Channel after piling up seven birdies along with his eagle and a lone bogey at the sixth. “It has been a long past two months, especially after starting off so well in Hawaii and Palm Springs.
“I was really hitting the ball pretty well early on the West Coast (swing).”
Barnes, whose best PGA Tour finish was joint second at the 2009 U.S. Open, tied for 20th at the Sony Open in Hawaii and shared 16th place at the Humana Challenge before his 2013 campaign unraveled.
“I started working on stuff and it just wasn’t clicking for me,” he said. “I knew I was going in the right direction with what I was working on. I just wasn’t grasping it and the results weren’t giving me any confidence as well.
“Good shots usually lead to confidence and I wasn’t really hitting it good and I wasn’t swinging good. And the short game wasn’t very good.
“I have been working pretty hard on all aspects of the game for the past two months, especially on the short game ... and today it kind of proved that is starting to pay off.”
Twice former U.S. Open winner Retief Goosen of South Africa opened with a 71 while last year’s Masters champion Bubba Watson, who clinched the New Orleans title in 2011, battled to a three-bogey 73.
English world number four Justin Rose, the highest-ranked player in the field, was among the late starters, along with China’s 14-year-old prodigy Guan Tianlang.
Guan, competing this week on a sponsor’s exemption, was expected to attract huge galleries after becoming the youngest player ever to make the cut in a major championship at the Masters earlier this month.
Reporting by Mark Lamport-Stokes in Los Angeles; Editing by Frank Pingue