Zach Johnson fights, fights, fights for Iowa on Thursday ... and for himself

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SILVIS, Ill. — The corporate tent at TPC Deere’s 15th hole was sponsored Thursday by the University of Iowa and co-sponsored by Zach Johnson’s longtime sponsor, AEGON/Transamerica.

So, while wearing Hawkeye colors on University of Iowa Day here, Johnson gave the black-and-gold-clads in that tent and its bleachers something to buzz about.

From a little way off the green in the primary rough, Johnson’s chip shot traveled 58 feet and three inches and fell into the hole for a birdie.

For a Thursday at the PGA Tour’s John Deere Classic, the noise seldom gets as loud from spectators.

“That was neat,” said Mike Gatens of Iowa City, a former Iowa basketball player and father of current Hawkeye cager Matt Gatens. They were in the tent at the time to see Johnson get to 5-under-par, which is where he finished with a first-round 66.

Johnson clearly agreed, fist-bumping with caddie Damon Green after the shot.

It was the highlight of a round that had its frustrating parts for the player on the front nine holes, but the day had considerably more stuff that was pleasing rather than vexing. The 66 could have been a 63 to match leader Kris Blanks’ score. Then again, without a nice sand save for par on No. 9 or that crowd-pleasing chip at 15 ...

“I played good,” Johnson said. “I hit the ball really good. I left some out there. But you can’t win it on Thursday.

“I’m encouraged. I’ve been playing like this for a long time, it seems like the last few months.”

Officially, he hit 13 of 14 fairways in regulation. If he really did miss the other one, it wasn’t by much. His only deficiency was in an area that’s usually a strength, putting.

Johnson began the day with a success rate of 74 percent this year on putts of 4 to 8 feet. But he missed birdie tries of 6, 7 and 7 feet. However, he holed one from 19 feet at No. 11 for birdie. He had a bogey-free round.

After missing a 6-foot birdie putt at No. 4, he muttered “Wow” to Green as they walked off the hole. But by round’s end, he had a score that he’d be happy to replicate in the next three rounds.

“It’s certainly a testament to not giving up,” Johnson said. “I’ve never done that. I grind. That’s how I play this game. I always have.

“I just like the story where I’m not supposed to win, that sort of thing.”

It was a good day for those officially announced as playing in the Aug. 1 Zach Johnson Foundation Classic at Elmcrest Country Club in Cedar Rapids.

Davis Love III shot a 64. Tour rookie Kyle Stanley, who is sponsored by Transamerica and has the same agent as Johnson, had a 65. They and Rickie Fowler are coming to Elmcrest, as are other Tour pros yet to be named.

Johnson and Love are neighbors in Sea Island, Ga.

“He brought McGladrey as a sponsor to our Tour event that my foundation runs (in Sea Island),” Love said. “So I owe him. We don’t go ‘You did mine, I’ll do yours.’ We don’t try to balance it out, but if Zach says ‘I need a favor,’ I’ll do it.”

Stanley is an absolute bomber. He is eighth on the Tour in driving distance, and hit a 357-yard tee shot on the par-5 No. 2 Thursday.

“Young and talented, much like half the Tour, it seems,” Johnson said. “He works really hard. He’s a grinder himself.

“He’s a great kid, a quality talent.”

Said Stanley: “He and I have developed a relationship the past couple of years. Nice older player kind of took me under his wing a little bit.”

Two-time defending champion Steve Stricker matched Johnson’s 66. Stricker is an Illinois alum, and it’s University of Illinois Day at the Deere on Friday.

The safest bet of the day is Johnson won’t be wearing orange-and-blue when he tees off at 7:30 a.m.

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