SILVIS, Ill. – His putting was miserable, he was missing cuts and every round was turning into a struggle.
Kris Blanks knew he was better than that so he made a change, focusing on the part of his game that was causing the most grief. He had to do something about his putting.
“I always equate a golfer to NASCAR. We’re always making tweaks,” Blanks said. “I just needed to do something to change it up and that’s what we did.”
Sometimes the tweaks don’t work.
This time, they did.
Blanks birdied his final five holes Thursday to finish with an 8-under-par 63 and grab the first-round lead at the John Deere Classic.
Blanks, who played the back nine first, rolled in a 25-foot putt on No. 5 to start his late run and capped it with an 11-footer to leave him alone at the top after Canadian rookie Matt McQuillan and veteran Davis Love III had held that spot much of the day with 64s.
“I hope I can keep it going,” Blanks said. “I’ve never made a cut here. I think this week I will – hopefully.”
Blanks, 38, is in his third year on the Tour and came in tied for 175th in putting. But after tinkering with his approach the previous night, he found what he needed and put himself in good position to reach the weekend.
“It was good to finally see some putts fall, which I’ve been struggling with all year,” said Blanks, who has missed the cut in 11 of 20 tournaments. “So that was definitely a positive. It’s just fun to make some putts.”
If Blanks was a surprise in the lead, seeing McQuillan near the top was even a bigger shock. McQuillan, who has missed 10 straight cuts this year, grew so discouraged with his game in 2005 that he spent two years tending bar in his hometown of Kingston, Ontario.
But he hasn’t made a cut since tying for 54th at the Sony Open in mid-January and has won just $12,705 on the year.
“It’s very difficult, and to stay positive and patient has been the key for me,” McQuillan said. “I’m out here playing with the best players in the world and on the best golf courses in the world.
“So it’s very tough to stay positive and patient. But I just figure I’m out here, I qualified to get out here, so I’m trying to have fun and make some birdies.”
Though no one approached the eye-popping numbers of last year’s first round, when Paul Goydos shot a 59 and Stricker had a 60, there were plenty of golfers bunched in the mid-60s. Goydos matched Stricker with a 66, as did Charles Howell III, Josh Teater, Lee Janzen, D.A. Points, Cameron Percy, Brendon De Jonge, Zach Johnson, Cameron Beckman, Chez Reavie and Jim Herman.
Goydos said conditions were completely different from a year ago, when rain left the course soft and vulnerable to low scores.
“It plays shorter, but it plays harder,” he said. “It’s hard to kind of squeeze your ball in there on some of the holes. Last year we were just shooting darts. The ball stopped where it landed. Today, you had to kind of bounce it in a little. It makes it more difficult.”
It wasn’t particularly difficult for Blanks, who spent time on the putting green Wednesday and a half-hour in front of the mirror in his hotel room later that evening trying to get everything right.
“The way I was stepping into the ball was creating my shoulders to be open, so I just changed my routine where I don’t go with it the same way,” Blanks said. “It was more awkward, but at this point, I kind of needed some awkwardness. If it felt comfortable, I was back to my older tendencies.”
After a bogey on No. 4 dropped him to 3 under, Blanks faced a 25-foot uphill putt on 5 and knocked it in. His confidence suddenly fired, he came back with a 14-footer for birdie on 6, rolled in birdie putts of 17 feet on each of the next two holes, then topped off his big day with a final birdie at No. 9.
“I thought my speed was real good all day,” he said. “I worked real hard yesterday afternoon and evening and went to a heavier putter to try to get the ball rolling.”
McQuillan recovered from a crazy bogey-eagle-bogey start to play near flawless golf the rest of the way – seven birdies without a bogey.
“Well, I figured I got my great stuff and bad stuff out early and then just tried to make some good swings,” he said.
His play Thursday left him with a much better feeling than he had when stepped away from the game six years ago. He welcomed the change at first because he needed something different. Eventually, it helped the former University of Georgia golfer realize what he really wanted to do.
“After about a year working, I realized golf wasn’t too bad,” he said.
Starting on the back nine, Love rolled in an 11-foot birdie putt on his first hole and went on to his best round of the year. He salvaged par on No. 17 by holing out from a greenside bunker and made a 13-foot putt for par on No. 8 after hitting into a bunker and then the rough.
“I putted well,” Love said. “Even the ones that didn’t go in, most of them I felt like I hit really good.”
Marino, who has two runner-up finishes this year, was even after three holes and a modest 2 under at the turn. But birdies on 10, 11, 12 and 13 put him in a position to challenge for the lead, a spot he would have held had he not missed a 9-footer for birdie at 14.
“Shooting 7 under the first day is awesome,” Marino said. “But it’s not going to get you anything come Sunday.”
David Toms (hip) and Robert Garrigus (back) withdrew from the tournament halfway through their rounds because of injuries. Toms said his injury will keep him out of next week’s British Open. George McNeill (76) and Scott Verplank (78) pulled out after finishing their rounds.