Watney starts and finishes strong, trails leaders by three at John Deere

SILVIS, Ill. — Playing in his hometown John Deere Classic, Zach Johnson shot a 7-under 64 and is tied with Camilo Villegas for the lead after Thursday’s opening round of the John Deere Classic.

For Johnson, who grew up roughly 100 miles away in Cedar Rapids, Iowa, it was the 17th straight round in the 60s at TPC Deere Run.

Matt Bettencourt made the field as a late alternate and shot a 6-under 65. He was tied for second with Daniel Summerhays and Brendon de Jonge.

Davis High graduate Nick Watney shot a 4-under 67, where he was tied for 13th with three-time tournament champion Steve Stricker.

Watney opened with birdies on the first two holes and closed the same way on Nos. 17 and 18. The former Blue Devil’s round included just one bogey, and he trailed Johnson by three strokes heading into Friday’s second round.

The first round co-leader didn’t always feel so comfortable on his home course. Johnson finished 69th five years ago after shooting 75 and 71 in the final two rounds — but he hasn’t touched 70 since.

Johnson, who was second in 2009 and third in 2011 before winning last year, topped his final-round 65 of 2012 by one stroke Thursday. He avoided bogeys while picking up birdies on five par-4s.

“It just feels so natural now,” Johnson said. ‘It just feels very, very comfortable, much like my golf game — though I don’t want to get overly content with the fact that I’m overly comfortable. So I’ve still got to go to work.”

Villegas was also very comfortable on a course that proved player-friendly in the morning session. He converted a pair of par-3 birdie putts to highlight a strong day on the greens.

“Made some great putts and just kept out of trouble. The golf course is a little receptive, and you could be aggressive,” Villegas said. “I was very pleased with the way I handled myself out there. It was nice, relaxed, chill attitude.”

Stricker entered the tournament as a co-favorite with Johnson, having won at TPC Deere Run from 2009-11. Stricker quickly showed why he’s considered the man the rest of the field could be chasing this weekend.

He just couldn’t keep it going for 18 holes.

De Jonge began his day with the one of the best shots of the tournament so far, holing out from 88 yards for an eagle on the par-5 10th hole. But Stricker matched him on No. 10 just 20 minutes later — chipping in from 83 yards out.

Stricker appeared to be in good shape as he made the turn at 4-under, but back-to-back bogeys helped put him three shots back of the leaders.

Wire and staff reports

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