SILVIS, Ill. On a spectacular Midwestern summer day, Zach Johnson opened the defense of his John Deere Classic title Thursday with a 7-under par 64, giving him a share of the first-round lead against a formidable field at TPC Deere Run.
"It's hard to believe that it's been a year," said Johnson, who was grouped with good pals Davis Love III and back-to-back-to-back John Deere Classic champion Steve Stricker. "I just kind of felt like, you're just leading into the next round here. The weather feels very similar. The course is, once again, in tremendous shape. The only difference is that I changed partners when I teed it up at the first hole."
Johnson, who won the tournament in a sudden death playoff last year, started his day on the back nine with birdies on holes 11, 15 and 17 to go out in 33. He birdied 1, 2, 5 and 6 on the front for an inbound 31. He said his bogey-free round was a great way to start his drive to repeat, which he regards as a difficult feat.
"I can only imagine winning this tournament twice in a row, let alone three times in a row," said Johnson, referring to Stricker's dominance from 2009-11. "You've got to feel the outcome, kind of eliminating the thoughts out of your brain and really just stay in the present...that's what make what Steve did that much more impressive."
It was the 17th consecutive round in the 60s at Deere Run for the Cedar Rapids native, now playing in the event for the 12th consecutive year. He has not missed the tournament since receiving sponsor exemptions in 2002 and 2003, and today is an active member of tournament's executive committee.
"I feel great about my game," said Johnson, a nine-time winner on the PGA TOUR and a productive member of the 2012 U.S. Ryder Cup team. "I haven't had a great year as far as my stats go or finishes...but it kind of frees me up right now...I've felt great about my game for the last month and a half, and I'm continuing to get more and more comfortable with my game. It's nice having a tournament and a course that I'm certainly happy to be playing."
Stricker and Love both opened with 4-under par 67s, leaving them in a 13-way tie for 13th place with the likes of Ryan Moore, K.J. Choi, Nick Watney and amateur Patrick Rodgers, playing on a sponsor exemption.
Tied for the lead was Camilo Villegas, who earned his first pro pay check ($8,284) at the 2004 John Deere Classic, playing on a sponsor exemption, but who has struggled in recently.
"The last year and a half hasn't been the best results-wise for me, but I've been working hard, and I do feel like my game is getting closer," said the native Colombian and former University of Florida golfer. "So that's always exciting."
Locked in a three-way tie for third with 65s were Zimbabwe's Brendon de Jonge, Daniel Summerhays and Matt Bettencourt, the last man in the field.
Kevin Streelman, a native of the Chicago suburbs and the highest-ranked player in the field in the FedEx Cup competition (8), and Boo Weekley (9) both shot 66 and were tied for sixth with five others. Meanwhile, Keegan Bradley opened with a 2-under 69.
Meanwhile, Japan's Ryo Ishiskawa thrilled his considerable media contingent by opening with four birdies on his first six holes (10, 12, 14 and 15), but stumbled with bogeys on his final two to finish with a 4-under 68 that must have felt more disappointing than it looked on his scorecard.
Thursday's weather was as close to summer perfection as it gets, with temperatures in the mid-80s and low humidity.
With 26 players in the British Open field, including last week's PGA TOUR winner Jonas Blixt, the John Deere Classic charter flight to Edinburgh is almost full, according to tournament director Clair Peterson.