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Kris Blanks takes honours with opening 63
July 8, 2011

Kris 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. 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.

He then played a year on the Canadian Tour and two on the eGolf Tour before going to Q-school on what he called “a shot in the dark” and earning a spot on this year’s PGA Tour.

But he hasn’t made a cut since tying for 54th at the Sony Open in mid-January and has won just $12,705 this 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.”

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