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PGA: Johnson Leads After Day 1 At John Deere Classic

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SILVIS, Ill. There was a time when Zach Johnson didn't contend for titles at John Deere Classics. Or come close to contending.

He would deny then that being around so many family members and friends from his Cedar Rapids hometown would make him uncomfortable inside the ropes at TPC Deere Run. He still does.

"I've always felt comfortable here, regardless of my numbers," Johnson said.

But he didn't finish better than 20th place until his eighth year here, when he tied for second in 2009. It wasn't as if he hadn't played some pretty good golf at many other PGA Tour venues.

Now? This is becoming the Johnson Deere Classic. Besides being a member of the tournament's board of directors since 2005, he also is its top drawing card. And the defending champion. And a co-leader after this year's first-round.

Johnson's round Thursday was a virtual extension of his play here last year. Fairways and greens. Birdie putts that dropped. A 7-under-par, bogey-free 64 that matched his best round here, and left him tied with Camilo Villegas for the first-round lead.

It was Johnson's 17th-consecutive round in the 60s, prompting this understatement from the player:

"That doesn't stink."

Johnson has just one Top 15 finish this season, a third-place at another of his favorite tourneys, the Crowne Plaza Invitational at Colonial in Fort Worth, Texas. He has won there twice.

But he has been saying he's playing well. His swing coach, Mike Bender, said before the round that Johnson was in a good groove.

"I feel great about my game," said Johnson, "but I've felt great about my game for the last month-and-a-half, and I'm continuing to get more and more comfortable with my game."

Damon Green, Johnson's caddy since the player came on the Tour in 2004, is even more of an even-keel guy than his boss, which is saying something. But he said a mouthful about Johnson after the round.

"I've never seen him hit better than the last two days (Tuesday's practice round and Wednesday's pro-am here)," Green said. "Today was not quite as good. But he's got it figured out."

"I remember I was thinking over the last few days I felt really good," Johnson said. "I played at home (at Elmcrest Country Club in Cedar Rapids) Monday, and then when you're striking it well Tuesday and same thing on Wednesday, you're like, OK, just don't stop. That's not easy to do."

Johnson was made part of a JDC supergroup for the first two rounds. He was paired with three-time JDC champion Steve Stricker and Davis Love III. Love was the 2012 Ryder Cup captain. Johnson and Stricker were two of his 12 players.

It may have been the best pairing ever assembled in the tourney's 43-year history. Love has 20 Tour wins, including a PGA Championship. Stricker has won 12 times, Johnson nine.

Stricker began the day with an eagle. Johnson eventually soared like one.

From 83 yards out on his first hole of the day, the par-4 10th, Stricker holed out with a wedge. Five holes into the round, Stricker and Love were at 3-under, Johnson at 1-under.

But Johnson birdied six of his next 10 holes, and had a splendid sand save on his next-to-last hole (No. 8) to stay at 7-under.

"Zach played great," Stricker said. "When he sets the pace like that, you don't want to fall too far behind." He didn't, and neither did Love. Both shot 67s.

Many of Johnson's fans left Cedar Rapids no later than 5 a.m. for a 90-minute drive to a tourney satellite parking lot, where they caught shuttle buses to the course. The players' performances rewarded an unusually large 7:30 a.m. gallery for this tourney.

The threesome tee off Friday at 12:45 p.m. You think Golf Channel will show the trio in its telecast of the tourney? Yes, you do.

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