Love in title hunt at Deere Run, Blanks leads
CHICAGO (Reuters) - PGA Tour veteran Davis Love III, refreshed and energized after a two-week break, charged ominously into contention for the John Deere Classic just one stroke behind Kris Blanks after Thursday's opening round.
The 47-year-old American, bidding for his first victory on the U.S. circuit since the 2008 Disney Classic, fired a flawless seven-under-par 64 in ideal scoring conditions at the TPC Deere Run course in Silvis, Illinois.
Love racked up seven birdies to end the round level with fellow American Steve Marino and Canadian journeyman Matt McQuillan, one behind American Blanks who sensationally birdied his last five holes.
American Mark Wilson and compatriot Kyle Stanley opened with 65s while world number five Steve Stricker, in pursuit of a third consecutive victory at Deere Run, was among a group of 12 players knotted on 66.
"I got off to a good start with the putter and, other than a couple of drives, hit the ball real well," Love told reporters. So, all in all, a real good day."
Love felt he had benefited from two relaxing weeks away from competition.
"I watched my son play a fair amount of golf ... I watched my daughter ride horses," he said. "I went paddle boarding five mornings in a row as my workouts.
"I think it's important to be mentally refreshed and physically strong. We've seen that with a lot of the top players lately, from Greg Norman to Tiger (Woods). If they're in shape and they feel good, it gives them confidence."
While Love may have reached the twilight of a glittering career that features a major victory at the 1997 PGA Championship and a total of 20 PGA Tour titles, he retains a sharp hunger for winning.
"I don't put an age on it," he said. "I still want to see how good I can get, whether I can get back to whatever level or if I can win more than 20.
"If it's only 20 (PGA Tour titles), that's great but I'm hoping I get a lot farther than that and stay competitive."
McQuillan, who has played most of his golf on the Canadian Tour and other second-tier circuits, was delighted to recover from a wild start.
"I hit it in the trees with a three-wood off the first hole, so I didn't really know what to expect for the day," the 30-year-old said.
"I chipped in for eagle on two and hit it in a bad spot on three and made another bogey but, from there on, it was a pretty flawless round."
Stricker, the highest-ranked player in the field, soared into early contention after playing in the company of fellow American Wilson.
"We played good," Stricker said. "We lost David Toms at the turn but Mark Wilson and I, we kind of fed off one another. ... even though it was a twosome it was a good group."
Toms, U.S. PGA champion in 2001, pulled out after nine holes because a hip injury. The 44-year-old American has also withdrawn from next week's British Open at Royal St George's.
South African Louis Oosthuizen, who defends his British Open title next week, opened with a 71 while American Stewart Cink, the 2009 Open champion at Turnberry, recorded a 72.
(Writing by Mark Lamport-Stokes in Los Angeles; Editing by Frank Pingue/Greg Stutchbury)