The US’ Zach Johnson and Brian Harman, and South Africa’s Rory Sabbatini each fired eight-under-par 63s to share the lead after Thursday’s first round of the US$4.7 million John Deere Classic.
Sabbatini and Johnson enjoyed bogey-free tours of the TPC Deere Run, while Harman suffered one bogey, as all three finished 18 holes one stroke in front of the US’ William McGirt and Todd Hamilton, the 2004 Open champion playing his first PGA round of the year, and Australian Steven Bowditch.
Johnson, ranked 16th and set for next week’s Open at Hoylake, began on the back nine and birdied six of his first eight holes and eight of his first 11 in the lowest round of his 12 appearances at the event, only a 90-minute drive from his hometown.
A 19-foot birdie putt at the par-three 12th was the longest that Johnson needed in the round thanks to sharp iron play and solid work off the tee, on a course where he won in 2012 and lost in a playoff last year to then-teen Jordan Spieth.
Johnson enjoyed seven top-10 showings after his runner-up effort last year, including a win in the USPGA playoffs at the BMW Championship.
Sabbatini ran off runs of three birdies in a row on the front and back nines in his round, sinking a 17-foot birdie putt at the third and a 22-foot birdie putt at the fourth to finish his first such streak.
He sank another 17-footer at the par-three seventh and another 22-footer for birdie at 12, then ran off three more in a row from the 15th to the par-five 17th to grab his share of the lead.
Harman birdied the third, fifth and ninth holes.
He then ran off four birdies in a row, starting at the 11th and highlighted by a 22-foot birdie putt at the 12th and a 15-footer at 13.
After finding the rough off the tee at 15 on the way to his lone bogey, Harman put his tee shot at the par-three 16th two feet from the cup for a tap-in birdie and sank a seven-foot birdie putt at the par-five 17th.
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