Zack Miller took the conservative path Thursday and fired a bogey-free, 6-under 66 to take a one-shot lead after the initial round of the Nationwide Tour’s Knoxville News Sentinel Open. Miller sits atop a crowded leaderboard that has seven players, including two-time major champion John Daly, sharing second place at 67 and nine more bunched together at 68.
Miller, a Stanford graduate, figured out early in the week that he needed to hit a lot of fairways if he wanted to enjoy some success at the Fox Den Country Club.
“We were hitting driver off the tee and found ourselves in some heinous lies and lies that kept us from advancing it to the green,” said Miller, who is No. 7 on the Nationwide Tour with an average driving distance of 313.8 yards. “The rough is very penalizing and there’s a huge premium to keep your ball in play.”
Rather than slug it out of the rough, which seemed likely given Miller ranks No. 113 in driving accuracy (61.49 percent), he opted to keep the cover on his driver and get the ball in the fairway. Miller wound up hitting 11 of 14 fairways.
“I love smacking driver everywhere, but it’s just going to give me a huge headache hitting driver and playing out of the rough this week,” he said. “It’s not my game -- my game is to pound driver and play from the trees. We hit a lot of irons off the tees and sacrificed distance.”
Miller hit driver only three times during the round, including the opening hole, a downhill 521-yard par 5 where he needed only a 7-iron for his second shot and rolled in a short putt for eagle-3.
“I was a little jittery on the first tee,” he admitted. “I had a week off and the last hole I played in Springfield I made a 9 to miss the cut. To start out 2 under through one was a nice cushion.”
Miller kept it simple from there, hitting a lot of 2-irons off the tee and adding birdies at Nos. 7, 10, 11 and 13 for his round of 66, marking the first time he’s held the lead this year.
Chasing him is the group of Daly, Kirk Triplett, David Hearn, William McGirt, Justin Peters, Skip Kendall, Robert Damron and Andrew Svoboda.
Daly, playing on a sponsor’s exemption, had it to 6 under through 10 holes when he also eagled the par-5 first hole. A pair of hiccups coming in resulted in a two bogeys before he turned things around with a birdie on No. 7.
“I got off to a good start, which hasn’t happened a lot this year,” said Daly, who birdied the first three holes and four of the first five. “I loved the way I managed the course today. It’s the type of course that you want to go at the flags any possible chance you can.”
Daly, never one to back down, belted driver at least eight times and also wound up hitting 11 fairways.
“I didn’t want to play too defensive,” he said. “I hit it absolutely perfect all day and put myself in some great spots. I’ve got to keep doing that. You’ve got to hit fairways out here.”
First-Round Notes: Thursday’s scoring average for the par-72 layout was 71.827, the highest single-round average since the first round in 2008 (72.532). … Only four of 20 first-round leaders have gone on to win this event. Frank Conner (1991), Dave Rummells (1997), Heath Slocum (2001) and Jarrod Lyle (2008) are the four who have done it. … Six players were bogey-free in the opener: Zack Miller (66), Skip Kendall (67), Travis Bertoni (68), Chris Kirk (68), Chad Ginn (69) and Mark Anderson (70). … Robert Gamez had a pair of eagles on the front nine today. Gamez eagled the par-5 first hole as well as the par-4 eighth hole. He started his day on the back nine with a 4-over 40 and then posted a 5-under 31 on the second nine for a 1-under 71 total.
Jerod Turner is making his first start on the Nationwide Tour this year. Turner won last year’s inaugural Soboba Classic and went on to finish the season No. 15 and earn his PGA Tour for this year. Turner, a rookie on Tour, has made eight cuts in 17 starts thus far but has no top-25 finishes and his highest finish is a tie for 48th at the HP Byron Nelson Championship. Turner, who has been battling through some back problems this season, shot a 73. … Colt Knost, No. 24 on the money list, shot a 9-over 81, matching his career-highest score. This is only the third time in Knost’s pro career he has shot a score of 80 or higher. He carded an 81 in the final round of the 2009 Shell Houston Open, and an 80 in the second round of the 2008 Arnold Palmer Invitational. Knost’s previous high on the Nationwide Tour was a 78, which he shot two times, including this year’s Nationwide Children’s Hospital Invitational.