Charles Howell III was sidelined for nine weeks earlier this PGA Tour season with a rib injury.
“With this particular injury, all I could really do was putt, so I spent more time putting in those nine weeks than I have in maybe the last five years of my career,” Howell said.
Practice made perfect on Thursday, when Howell shot a bogey-free 8-under-par 63 to share the first-round lead at the John Deere Classic.
Ollie Schniederjans caught Howell in the afternoon, making birdies on his final two holes. The 63 was the lowest score of the 24-year-old’s brief PGA Tour career.
“It’s the best I’ve felt about my game all year long,” said Schniederjans, who has been dealing with a back injury. “I wasn’t surprised with how I hit it today. It was nice to get a couple of putts to drop.”
This has been the year of the 20-somethings on the PGA Tour. Twelve players under the age of 25 have won this year, the most since 1970. Schniederjans would make it 13. The former Georgia Tech golfer, who once reached No. 1 in the World Amateur Golf Rankings, is making his John Deere debut.
“I’m excited to try and keep it going and see what I can do,” Schniederjans said.
Howell’s 63, his lowest score in 39 career rounds at TPC Deere Run, included just 24 putts. He made 123 feet, 9 inches worth of putts.
“His putter was awesome,” said playing partner Zach Johnson, who opened with a 65. “You have to be aggressive with that putter. And he was awesome.”
Howell returned from his injury at the Quicken Loans National two weeks ago. He ended up losing in a playoff to Kyle Stanley.
“I went to Quicken Loans, quite honestly, not prepared to play well,” Howell said. “I had only been hitting balls for four or five days prior to that event. Expectations were extremely low and I played well. I know that’s a good lesson for myself and all golfers.”
This is Johnson’s 16th appearance at the Deere, and the fifth time he’s shot 65 or better in the opening round. He posted a 63 in 2014, a 64 in 2006 and 2013 and another 65 in 2016.
Johnson was joined at 65 by Rory Sabbatini, Patrick Rodgers, and Chad Campbell. Sabbatini was even par at the turn, but rallied for a 6-under 30 coming home. Rodgers, who tied for 15th here in 2013 as an amateur, didn’t have a bogey on his card. He kept that card clean by getting up-and-down for a par at No. 18.
“I think everyone out here takes a lot of pride in a clean card, especially me,” Rodgers said. “I’ve been making a lot of mistakes this year and it’s been frustrating at times. Having a clean card is a testament to the hard work I’m putting in. It’s nice to see. I hope I can carry it forward.”
Campbell had four birdies and a bogey in his final five holes to get himself in a good position heading into Friday’s second round.
The first of Howell’s 11 Deere appearances came in 2000, when he received a sponsor’s exemption and finished third. He also tied for fifth in 2011. His previous low Deere round, a 64, came in the second round in 2000 and the final round in 2011.
Howell, 38, said his 2000 appearance in the Quad Cities “kind of kick-started my career.” He’s a two-time winner on the PGA Tour, most recently the 2007 Nissan Open.
“This morning we were talking, and Daniel Berger was six years old when I was here in 2000,” said Howell, who was also paired with Berger Thursday. “I’m definitely on the back side of the curve right now. I need to take better advantage of these opportunities.”
Time waits for no one. Especially professional golfers.
“I do realize I’m not 21 anymore,” Howell said. “That’s sometimes a tough pill to swallow.”
Teeing off at 8 a.m. Thursday, Howell knew he’d have prime scoring conditions. And he took advantage, with a little help from TPC Deere Run.
“This is the best I’ve seen the greens,” Howell said. “The speeds are back up on them. Granted, this morning without traffic they were rolling like carpet.”
Howell also got some motivation from Johnson, whose resume is one of the best in tournament history. In a seven-year stretch between 2009 and 2015, Johnson won the 2012 Deere and also has a runner-up finish, two ties for second and two ties for third.
“I figured if I could try to ride his coattails, I’d be doing all right,” Howell said.
Johnson hit 12 of 14 fairways and 17 of 18 greens in regulation. He also got around in 29 putts. And Howell finished two shots in front of him.
“You’ve got to have an aggressive mindset,” Johnson said. “Certainly Charles was the rabbit today, and I was just trying to catch him.”
Schniederjans hit 16 of 18 greens in regulation, and had 29 putts. His made putts covered 90 feet 3 inches.
“You’re going to have to make putts out here,” Schniederjans said. “Scores are going to be low. Even when you stick it all day, you have to make those 10- and 15-footers. I’ve been working hard on my putting.”