SILVIS, Ill. — The temperatures were high and the scores were low during the opening round of the 2023 John Deere Classic, setting up for what should be an exciting 54-hole finish.
The majority of the field was under par on Thursday at TPC Deere Run, and it’s three-time PGA Tour winner Jonas Blixt atop the leaderboard after the Swede shot a blistering 9-under 62 in the Quad Cities heat. The 39-year-old veteran on Tour has struggled over the years and hasn’t won since 2017, but after a back surgery in 2019 he’s finally found his form again after some work with his swing coach.
While Blixt was the highlight of the day, the opening round featured action from start to finish, including a past champion beating himself up with the press and a one-time winner who has battled back from adversity.
Here’s what we learned from the first round of the 2023 John Deere Classic at TPC Deere Run.
Takes the lead, goes to the zoo
Blixt didn’t have much work to do after his round, just an hour or so of drills to stay fresh. After that? He went to the zoo after an invitation from playing partner and fellow Swede Henrik Norlander.
“He came up on the third hole, and he is, like, ‘Hey, I’m going to the zoo today. Do you want to go?'” said Blixt. “I was like, ‘Yeah, let’s go.'”
“I’m a big fan of zoos.”
It’s the little things in life.
Where are players making their moves?
Of the 156 players in the field this week, more than half were under par on Thursday, with 39 at 3 under or better. So where are players taking advantage? Looking at scorecards for the leaders, players were picking apart the back nine. After all, six of the nine easiest holes on the course in the first round were on the back nine, while six of the most difficult holes were on the front.
That said, the opening nine played to an average of 34.94, while the back came in slightly higher at 35.23. The par-71 track is playing almost a full shot under par. With Friday’s forecast of cooler temperatures and cloudy skies, don’t be surprised if more players take advantage of the calm conditions in the second round.
Few people know TPC Deere Run better than Zach Johnson. The Iowa City native is a fan favorite, especially after his win in 2012. In 20 starts at the Deere, Johnson has missed the cut just three times and has seven top 10s and three runner-up finishes.
Sitting T-116 after a 1-over 72, Johnson beat himself up following Thursday’s opening round.
“I need to regroup mentally and figure out what the positives may be. I didn’t putt well today, but I mean, I know these greens really, really well, so I don’t have an excuse there,” he said. “I was reflecting coming down my last few holes. I did make a couple of birdies in there, but I think I probably — I take my play at this place a little bit for granted over the years. It’s not an easy golf course. If you get the ball in play, obviously you can score. So I feel like I’m doing that all right, and I can continue to do that, but I don’t know.”
“I sound like I’m Debbie Downer right now, but I shot 1-over par on a golf course that I know like the back of my hand,” he continued. “When it’s your profession and you shoot 1-over on a golf course like this, you’re going to be frustrated. And I am, like I said.”
Even despite his poor play, Johnson still had the largest gallery of the day in the Quad Cities. Fans were cheering for pars and bogeys as if they were birdies.
“It’s probably a little undeserving. At the same time I’m very grateful,” Johnson said of the loving crowds. “Regardless of what my scorecard shows, regardless if I’m playing really, really good, mediocre, or poor, they’re still there.”
Johnson has made 14 consecutive cuts at the John Deere Classic, and his most-recent missed cut came back in 2007. He’s only three starts shy of Jay Delsing for the most appearances in tournament history, and if he bounces back to make the cut on Friday, he’ll tie DA Weibring’s tournament record for most total cuts made (18) in tournament history.
Off-course happiness becomes on-course success
Grayson Murray hasn’t always had the easiest time on Tour. He’s struggled with his sobriety, gotten into spats with other players in meetings and was involved in a scooter accident last October that forced him to withdraw from an event in Bermuda.
On Thursday, Murray showed what he’s capable of on the course when things are going well off the course: the 29-year-old shot a 7-under 64 and sits two shots behind Blixt after 18 holes at TPC Deere Run.
“You know what, I’ve been playing really well on the Korn Ferry Tour and got a win about a month ago and a third place out there,” he said after his round. “I’m in a good position out there to lock up my card here soon, and I felt like coming out here with an opportunity to kind of double-dip, as you could say, and play a little more free knowing that my card is pretty much locked up out there.”
Murray’s been working hard off the course to make his life on the course a little easier. He’s filling his time with positivity and doing things he enjoys, like hitting the gym or catching a movie. Pro golfers have a lot of downtime, and not everyone prioritizes the right things when they first start their careers. Murray freely admits he’s one of those players.
“I’ve been out here a long time, and I kind of had a ‘coming to Jesus’ moment a little bit and said, ‘Hey, look, I have an opportunity here. I probably haven’t reached my prime yet,'” he said. “I can get on a good solid ten-year run, and that’s what I plan on doing. I’m in such a good spot right now where I don’t want to change anything I’m doing.”
“When things are in place off the course, you can tell a guy that his mind is in a good spot off the course by his game. It’s a tough lifestyle that some guys — that a lot of people don’t realize. You go through ups and downs out here on Tour,” he explained. “I’m trying to make it where it’s not my life; it’s just kind of what I do and put things in perspective. I’ve got a good support team around me that’s encouraging me.”
Murray knows his accident in Bermuda is part of his story now, and he doesn’t hide from it. He’s still dealing with some physical effects, like a beat up knee and some unhealed scar tissue, but he looks healthy and is saying the right things, too. He’s made just two cuts on Tour in eight starts this season, but his Korn Ferry Tour success appears to have found its way to the big Tour this week.
“I think I take an approach out there like I’m the best. That’s what type of approach I want to take out here eventually,” he said of his differing thoughts when playing on the Korn Ferry compared to the PGA Tour. “You’ve got to see results out on the course before you can start having that confidence. You can’t just have it in you at all times, I feel like.”
“I think everyone kind of goes through some ups and downs with their confidence, but if you see the results and believe in yourself, then I think there’s no reason that I can’t step on the first tee and think that I’m the best player in the field, without a cocky way of saying it.”
The John Deere Classic prides itself on its reputation for offering up-and-coming PGA Tour talent a chance to showcase their abilities, but it’s also a feeding ground for players looking to take the next step.
Over the years, 23 players have won their first event on Tour at the Deere, and five of the last 11 winners have been first-time winners. After 18 holes, three winless players are within three shots of the lead. Greyson Sigg, Adam Schenk and Cameron Young each shot 6-under 65s on Thursday, and each is still searching for their maiden Tour win.
So far this year, eight players have raised a trophy for the first time, and if history repeats itself, chances are high a ninth will do the same on Sunday.
Story originally appeared on GolfWeek