Stricker in the mix at John Deere
SILVIS — It took years for Zach Johnson to feel comfortable at his hometown tournament.
These days, Johnson is more relaxed than anyone in the field, and that’s a major reason why he’s in early position to repeat as the champion of the John Deere Classic.
Johnson shot a 7-under 64 and is tied with Camilo Villegas for the lead after Thursday’s opening round of the John Deere Classic.
It was the 17th straight round in the 60s at TPC Deere Run for Johnson, who grew up roughly 100 miles away in Cedar Rapids, Iowa.
Matt Bettencourt made the field as a late alternate and shot a 6-under 65. He’s tied for second with Daniel Summerhays and Brendon de Jonge.
Boo Weekley is among a host of players at 5-under 66, while three-time tournament champion and former Illini Steve Stricker is at 4-under 67 heading into today’s second round.
Other former Illini in the field included Scott Langley (68), Joe Affrunti (69), D.A. Points (72) and Luke Guthrie (76).
“It’s hard to believe that it’s been a year. Yeah, I just kind of felt like you’re just leading into the next round here,” Johnson said. “I’ve just gotten so used to just everything about this tournament.”
It wasn’t always that way for Johnson.
Johnson finished 69th here five years ago after shooting 75 and 71 in the final two rounds, but he hasn’t touched 70 since.
Johnson, who was second in 2009 and third in 2011 before winning last year, topped his final-round 65 of 2012 by 1 stroke Thursday.
He avoided bogeys while picking up birdies on five par-4s.
“It just feels so natural now,” Johnson said. `It just feels very, very comfortable, much like my golf game, though I don’t want to get overly content with the fact that I’m overly comfortable. So I’ve still got to go to work.”
Villegas was also very comfortable on a course that proved player-friendly in the morning session. He converted a pair of par-3 birdie putts to highlight a strong day on the greens.
“Made some great putts and just kept out of trouble. The golf course is a little receptive, and you could be aggressive,” Villegas said. “I was very pleased with the way I handled myself out there. It was nice, relaxed, chill attitude.”
Stricker entered the tournament as a co-favorite with Johnson, having won at TPC Deere Run from 2009-11.
Stricker quickly showed why he’s considered the man the rest of the field could be chasing this weekend.
He just couldn’t keep it going for 18 holes.
De Jonge began his day with the one of the best shots of the tournament so far, holing out from 88 yards for an eagle on the par-5 10th hole.
But Stricker matched him on No. 10 just 20 minutes later, chipping in from 83 yards out.
Stricker appeared to be in good shape as he made the turn at 4 under, but back-to-back bogeys helped put him 3 shots back of the leaders.
The most unlikely name among Thursday’s leaders had to be Bettencourt’s.
Sensing this week’s field would be full, Bettencourt booked a flight to Salt Lake City for this weekend’s Web.com event.
But as he was sitting on a plane in Atlanta, the PGA Tour office called to tell him that he was eligible to replace Neal Lancaster.
Bettencourt was stuck with a flight to Utah regardless.
But he then flew straight to Chicago, rented a car and arrived in the Quad Cities just before midnight.
Bettencourt didn’t need any practice time, though.
He shot his best round at Deere Run since also opening the 2009 tournament with a 65.
“Fortunately, I know the golf course, pretty much know the setup, been here enough times,” Bettencourt said. “I love this golf course. It’s a lot of fun, so I was really excited the entire flight to Chicago and kind of (on) adrenaline, I guess.”