Charles Howell III was watching the Golf Channel earlier this week, and they were discussing Zach Johnson’s track record at the John Deere Classic.
“I figured if I could try to ride his coattails, I’d be doing all right,” Howell said.
Ride, he did. Howell, who was paired with Johnson, shot a bogey-free 8-under-par 63 to take the early first-round lead at the John Deere Classic Thursday at TPC Deere Run.
“A low score was out there this morning,” said Howell, who finished third when he played here on a sponsor’s exemption in 2000.
The 63 was Howell’s lowest in 39 career rounds at TPC Deere Run. He shot 64 in the second round in 2000 and the final round in 2011, when he tied for fifth.
In a seven-year stretch between 2009 and 2015, Johnson has put together an impressive resume that Howell was making reference to.
The 12-time winner on the PGA Tour, including the 2007 Masters and 2015 Open Championship, has a win (2012), a runner-up finish, two ties for second and two ties for third at TPC Deere Run.
Johnson birdied his first three holes Thursday and shot 65. Thirty-one of his last 33 rounds at the Deere have been in the 60s. He has shot par or better in 36 consecutive rounds.
“You can tell he loves the golf course and he’s comfortable here,” Howell said. “You could see that from the very first hole today, his comfort level here. I figured if I could hang with him today and (Friday) I’d have a nice chance going into the weekend. Because he’s going to play well every day. He’s far too good of a player not to.”
Rory Sabbatini closed with 6-under-par 30 on the back nine to also open with a 65 Thursday. That matched Sabbatini’s second-best round in six Deere appearances. He shot 63 in the first round in 2014, and closed with a 65 in 2012.
Patrick Rodgers, who tied for 15th in the 2013 Deere as an amateur, also shot 65.
Howell was out for nine weeks after suffering a rib injury. He returned at the Quicken Loans National two weeks ago with no expectations, and lost in a playoff to Kyle Stanley. He also finished second at the Farmers Insurance Open before his injury and has five Top 10 finishes this season.
Howell spent extra time working on his putting while he was on the shelf, and that work was obvious Thursday. He needed just 24 putts in his 63.
“His putter was awesome,” Johnson said. “You have to be aggressive with that putter. And he was awesome.”
Johnson wasn’t bad himself, getting around with 29 putts. Seven of them were for birdies, including a 24-footer for birdie on No. 8, his 17th hole.
Johnson hit 12 of 14 fairways off the tee, and 17 of 18 greens in regulation. The only miss was at No. 9, his final hole. His second shot ended up pin high, in the first cut of rough.
“It was probably a 6-iron normally, but I punched a 5-iron just to get back there and he aggressive.,” Johnson said. “I overcooked it a little bit.”