SILVIS – Whenever a big roar thundered through the oaks at the TPC Deere Run on Thursday morning, chances are Zach Johnson had something to do with it.
The Cedar Rapids native is among a trio of leaders, along with Rory Sabbatini and Brian Harman, after carding a bogey-free, 8-under-par 63 in the first round of the John Deere Classic. Johnson was an immensely popular champion in 2012, lost in a three-way playoff a year ago, and currently serves on the John Deere Classic Board of Directors.
Johnson has now carded 21 consecutive rounds in the 60s in the event. The last time he didn’t crack that mark was an even-par 71 in he final round of the 2008 tourney. He is 92-under-par since then.
“I don’t know if I really expected this this early,” Johnson said. “I felt like good things were coming, especially with my putter,
and the ball-striking has always been decent. Today was everything. I mean, I hit my wedges really good. That was the bottom line. I hit my wedges really solid.”
Thursday’s round was achieved with a new man, Lance Bennett, carrying his clubs. Johnson’s normal caddie, Damon Green, is competing in the United States Senior Open this week.
Bennett is normally the caddie for Matt Kuchar, who is in the final week of a 3-week break. He will compete in the British Open next week.
“I was conferring with another caddie friend of mine, and I talked to Damon about it,” Johnson said of he decision to work with Bennett. “I had Lance in the back of my head, but I didn’t realize Matt was taking 3 weeks off, so it just worked out.
“Matt and I have talked about it, and Matt was on board at the very beginning. Plus, we have similar games, … so why not keep fresh?”
Oquawka native Todd Hamilton owns a surprise spot on the leaderboard after carding a 7-under-par 64.
Hamilton, the 2004 British Open champion, was once ranked as high as 16th in the world, but is now relegated to the Web.com Tour. He has nine starts on that tour this season, with two cuts made and a total of $3,768 in earnings.
This marked his first PGA Tour start of the 2014 season. He’ll turn 50 and be eligible for the Champions Tour in October of 2015.
When asked what a round like he had Thursday would do for his mindset on Friday and the rest of the week, he replied, “Can’t do anything but help, I don’t think. I didn’t really come here expecting to shoot 7-under par. I was very fortunate to get into the tournament, actually, go in on a sponsor invite. Obviously, a round like this, you can’t help but gain confidence.”
It wasn’t such a great day for defending champ Jordan Spieth, who won the tournament as a 19-year-old a year ago to become the first teenage winner on the PGA Tour since 1931.
After two bogeys in a three-hole stretch on the front nine, and three bogeys against just one birdie in his first 11 holes, Spieth had to birdie two of his final three holes of the day just to finish at even par.
His 71 tied him with 23 other golfers in 83rd place.
“It was a struggle, kind of tough,” Spieth said. “I hit some wedges that are not characteristic of the way I normally hit wedges, but I drove the ball great and I’m putting well. An off day, but we held it together for even.
“I was down about eight [shots] last year after the first round, so I’m still not out of it.”
Another fan favorite, three-time tourney champ Steve Stricker, was in the same mood as Spieth after his opening-round 3-under 68.
He closed with three birdies over the final five holes, and is tied with 11 other players in 24th place.
“I didn’t hit it all that great today, kind of scuffed it around at times, but I managed a good 3-under out of it,” said Stricker, a Wisconsin native and former University of Illinois golfer. “I made a couple mistakes I shouldn’t have, but I hung in there nice.”
Davis Love III turned 50 on April 13, making him eligible for the U.S. Senior Open. Instead, he’s in the John Deere Classic field, with an eye toward competing in next week’s British Open.
The player who finishes in the top five and is not otherwise qualified for the British Open will earn a berth in the event that begins Thursday in Liverpool, England.
Love III, the 1997 PGA Championship and two-time Players Championship winner, is among that group, and put himself in decent shape Thursday. He shot a first-round 2-under par 69, putting him in a tie for 37th place.
The purse for this year’s John Deere Classic is $4,700,000, an increase of $100,000 from a year ago. The winner’s share will be $846,000, an increase of $18,000 from last year.
When the Quad Cities Open, as it was known in 1971, first started, the total prize money was $25,000. Deane Beman won that initial event and earned $5,000.
The tournament is also one of the best givers on Tour, through its “Birdies for Charity” program. Annually, the JDC raises more charitable dollars per capita than any other event. A total of $6,320,000 was raised for 467 participating charities from the 2013 John Deere Classic.