AVONDALE, La. — On the day he celebrated his 32nd birthday, Nick Watney got to celebrate returning to the place where he got his first PGA Tour victory.
Watney, a 1999 Davis High graduate who grew up in Dixon and now lives in Las Vegas, shot a 3-under 69 on Thursday at the rain-softened TPC Louisiana. The former Blue Devils opened the Zurich Classic of New Orleans — an event he won back in 2007 — five strokes behind leader Ricky Barnes.
Barnes birdied six of the last eight holes on Day 1 and totaled an eagle, seven birdies and a bogey for an 8-under 64. Boo Weekley and Lucas Glover were a stroke back, and D.A. Points and Morgan Hoffmann shot 66 on Thursday.
Watney told reporters he feels like he is in good position after playing well despite an earlier tee time that pitted him against some rough weather conditions. He still managed to birdie No. 2 and No. 7 on his front nine, then add another birdie on the 18th hole to finish strong.
Watney was alongside a couple of other people who like playing in The Big Easy, as partners Jason Dufner and Bubba Watson are the last two winners at Zurich. Defending champion Dufner shot 70, and 2011 winner Watson had a 73.
Guan Tianlang, the 14-year-old Chinese amateur playing on a sponsor exemption, opened with an even-par 72, highlighted by a 5-wood that he hit to a foot on the par-3 17th.
“I think I played pretty good golf,” Guan said. “Not the best but I made some ups and downs and a couple birdies.”
He tied for 58th in the Masters after becoming the youngest player to make the cut at Augusta National, and said Thursday that he will play in a U.S. Open qualifier in two weeks in Dallas.
Ernie Els and Rickie Fowler head a group of 10 players at 5 under.
Eighty-four players were at 1-under or better on the rain-softened TPC tract, with 30 players within 4 shots of the lead. Heavy rains that spawned at least two tornadoes in the New Orleans area Wednesday left TPC’s normally firm greens soft and defenseless.
Players were allowed to lift clean and place their golf balls in the fairways, which especially benefited the later players after an early mist gave way to sunny and ideal scoring conditions.
Barnes missed the cuts in seven of his last eight events. He jump-started his round with the eagle on the par-5 second hole, hitting a 3-wood from 294 yards to 12 feet.
“That kind of got the round going,” he said. “I was 3 under (after a birdie at the fourth) and those are the kind of starts I need.”
Barnes birdied the par-5 11th, had four consecutive birdies on Nos. 13-16 and finished with a birdie on the par-5 18th. He hit all 14 fairways in regulation and had 26 putts.
Barnes said a new, albeit unusual, pre-putt routine has helped his focus. He uses a left-hand low grip for the practice stroke and a “claw” grip for the actual stroke.
“If you watch a lot of guys that (putt) cross-hand, their shoulders are able to stay very level,” he said. “It’s a good way of getting the feeling of hitting down on the ball.”
The stage might be set for another Barnes-Glover shootout, similar to the 2009 U.S. Open at Bethpage in New York when the duo battled in the final three rounds. Glover eventually overtook Barnes in the final round to win his only major championship.
Glover birdied his first four holes, playing the back nine first, to get to 6 under. After a bogey on the sixth, he closed the round with birdies on the eighth and ninth holes.
“Any time you can climb up the board in the afternoon, it feels pretty good,” said Glover, who had a 12:30 p.m. tee time. “I hit it like I’ve been hitting it and finally putted well.”
Weekley, fighting a sinus infection, made a 27-foot putt on the final hole to climb into a tie for second.
“It was good. It could have gotten real good if some of them putts would have fallen early in the round,” Weekley said. “I left at least four on the front side that were good birdie putts. I had good looks at them.”