Closing the back nine with birdies key at JDC

Zach Johnson hits from the sand trap next to the 11th green at TPC Deere Run during the first round of the John Deere Classic on Thursday in Silvis.

Zach Johnson hits from the sand trap next to the 11th green at TPC Deere Run during the first round of the John Deere Classic on Thursday in Silvis.

SILVIS – Steve Wheatcroft put himself in the early lead Thursday at the John Deere Classic by stringing together birdies on the back nine.

Going off the first tee at 7:10 a.m. with Patrick Rodgers and Keith Mitchell – the very first group to tee off – Wheatcroft put up a front-nine 33 before a birdie on 10 that was followed by birdies on his final six holes of the day.

“I tried to keep the round going, I asked if we could just go to the first tee and start round two,” he joked following the first-round 62. “I don’t know if I’ve ever done that to finish a round. It was great.”

Birdies, especially on the final three holes of the back nine, were the order of the day for the leaders, to the point that anyone who faltered during that stretch saw themselves slipping down the leaderboard.

Johnson Wagner could have matched Wheatcroft’s 62 had he matched the birdie on 18, but a bogey instead left him two strokes back. Many of the golfers within a few strokes of the lead after the morning rounds were there with birdies on some, but not all, of the final three holes. A par on No. 16 put Michael Kim a stroke off the lead. Pars on Nos. 16 and 18 put Nick Taylor two strokes back.

The 17th, a 569-yard par-5 that bigger hitters can reach in two, left open the chance for eagles. Scott Brown’s eagle on the hole helped him shoot a 6-under 65 for the day. Chesson Hadley also eagled No. 17, but gave back some of that momentum with a bogey on No. 18. Charlie Beljan eagled the 17th, but it was one of just two red numbers on the scoreboard for him Thursday as he shot a 69.

Francesco Molinari followed up a birdie on No. 17 with another on No. 18, putting him at 65 for the round. His final hole saw him put his tee shot in the center of the fairway, then stick the approach, leaving him with a short birdie putt he was able to sink with ease.

The high-profile threesome of Zach Johnson, Wesley Bryan and Steve Stricker were all even-par for that three-hole stretch, with Johnson shooting a 69 for the round, Stricker a 70, and Bryan a 71.

“Ideally, you hit it in the middle of the fairway instead of 25 yards left,” Johnson said of the 18th hole, which he bogeyed following a birdie on No. 17. “Hitting the fairway is the first feat, and after that you have to hit a quality shot just to give yourself a chance.”

Stricker also birdied the 17th, then bogeyed No. 18.

“Yeah, I hit an awful drive and it rattled around in the trees,” he said. “I think it even kicked further back. Had a good look at par, though. I wedged it out in the fairway and then hit a 9-iron in there to about 12 feet or so, but didn’t make [the putt]. Hit it over the lip.”

No. 18 proved to be a challenge for many golfers. Moments after Denny McCarthy put his tee shot on No. 18 into the rough to the right of the fairway, playing partner Andrew Yun put his shot in much the same spot, lacing it through the leaves of the trees lining the right side of the fairway, bouncing it off the cart path, and seeing it come to rest in the rough.

Yun had a double bogey on No. 18 to go with his bogey on No. 17. McCarthy managed to salvage par.

Defending champion Bryson DeChambeau never even made it as far as No. 18, withdrawing on No. 16 with a shoulder injury. He suffered the injury trying to punch out of the rough on No. 2 and tried to play through it, but it began to affect his play on the back nine.

“[On No.] 11, you obviously saw me hit it way right,” he said. “I’m like, ‘Wow, something is not right.’ Then on 12 when I took it back on my takeaway, it literally gave out. I had nothing there.”

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