SILVIS, Ill. — Bubba Watson was the feature attraction at the John Deere Classic Thursday afternoon, with his pink driver, pink golf ball, driving distance that makes grown-ups giggle in the gallery, and a glorious golf resume.
But a better show was quietly staged in the morning by a less-flamboyant fellow with a far more regal name than “Bubba.” Charles Howell III shot a first-round, 8-under par 63 at TPC Deere Run to share the first-round lead with Ollie Schniederjans.
Howell arrived on the PGA Tour at the start of the millennium with a lot more fanfare than Watson did as a rookie in 2006. Howell was the individual winner at the NCAA Championships in 2000 for team-champion Oklahoma State, and received the Fred Haskins Award as the nation’s outstanding collegiate golfer.
Not many weeks later, new pro Howell finished third at the Deere. In 2001, he was the PGA Tour’s Rookie of the Year.
But here it is in 2017, and Howell has won but twice on the Tour. The last time was 10 years ago. Oh, what might have been. He has finished second 16 times, the most-recent a sudden-death playoff defeat to Kyle Stanley two weeks ago at the Quicken Loans National.
“I do realize I’m not 21 anymore,” Howell said Thursday. “That’s sometimes a tough pill to swallow.”
Watson joined the Tour with less fanfare. He spent three years on the now-Web.com Tour before earning a PGA Tour card, and didn’t win on the big tour until 2010. But he has nine Tour victories, including the 2012 and 2014 Masters, and is one of the relatively few players in golf immediately identifiable by one name and a distinct image.
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So with Watson making his first appearance at TPC Deere Run since 2010, a throng followed him Thursday. They saw him bogey the first hole. But then he smacked his tee shot 335 yards at the par-5 No. 2, put his second shot within 12 feet of the cup, and made the eagle putt.
But things were a lot less interesting after that, and Watson finished with a 2-under 69.
If nothing else this weekend, Watson will get a ride on the jet the JDC will send to England Sunday night to transport its players who are qualified to play in next week’s British Open.
“When I heard the seats on the jet lay down flat, I had to be there for that,” Watson was overheard saying at the No. 1 tee box Thursday.
Howell will be on that flight. He’d like to carry a Deere trophy onto the plane. He said he rode Zach Johnson’s wave to the front of the pack Thursday.
“I was watching Golf Channel and saw Zach’s record here (six Top 3-finishes in his last eight JDCs) is phenomenal, right?” Howell said.
“So I figured if I could just hang with him today and even try to ride his coattails a little bit, I would be doing all right.”
Johnson and Howell were playing partners, along with Daniel Berger. Johnson and Howell birdied the first two holes, Nos. 10 and 11. Johnson birdied No. 12. Howell caught him at No. 14. They both birdied No. 16, Howell birdied No. 17, and stayed atop the leaderboard the rest of the day.
Johnson shot a 65, his best score since his 65 in the third round of the Sony Open in Hawaii six months ago. He is tied for third place. It was his 12th round of 65 or better here.
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“I’m very comfortable with the golf course in essentially any condition,” Johnson said.
Howell returned to competitive play two weeks ago after missing nine weeks with a rib injury.
“With this particular injury,” he said, “all I could really do was putt. So I spent more time, I think, putting in those nine weeks than I have in maybe the last five years of my career.
“Watching the coverage on TV, missing events, it drove me nuts. ... This is what I do.”
Even with the time off, Howell has earned nearly $2.5 million this year. He has made at least $1.25 million in each of his 17 Tour seasons. But he’s 38 now, not 21. In his racket, you’re remembered by wins, not dollars.
“I’m definitely on the back side of the curve right now,” Howell said. “I need to take better advantage of these opportunities.”