SANDY, Utah -- Morgan Hoffmann came into the Utah Championship knowing if he wanted to contend this week, he would have to make a lot of birdies. On Thursday, he did just that.
Hoffmann, a non-Web.com Tour member, who earned a spot in this week's field by virtue of his tie-for-fourth performance at the United Leasing Championship in Evansville, Ind., two weeks ago, made eight birdies and a lone bogey for a 7-under 65. He is tied for the lead with Brad Fritsch and Doug LaBelle II after the first round of the 14th annual event. Jason Allred is a stroke back of the trio, with seven players tied for fifth, two shots behind.
"There are going to be a lot of low scores out here," Hoffmann said following his round. "It's shown in the last few years you need to go low."
Hoffmann knows his history. Since 2007, only one Utah Championship winner hasn't made it to at least 20-under -- Michael Putnam, who finished at 18-under in 2010. Hoffman, who made two PGA Tour cuts in 2011 and tied for 29th at this year's U.S. Open, looked like he was going to give a stroke back on the par-3 18th, when his tee shot missed the green, leaving him with a delicate chip from the right rough, with the cup 25 feet downhill cut not far from a nearby lake.
He pitched to three feet and made the par save. Even had he missed the putt, though, the Oklahoma State product, who is making his fifth Web.com Tour start this season, was enjoying his first official tour around Willow Creek Country Club.
"You don't get a better venue than this. Even if you hit a poor shot, you just look up at the mountains. It's unbelievable. I just feel lucky to be here," he said.
On a day when temperatures reached triple digits but the signature afternoon winds never materialized, 90 players of the 155 who finished their rounds were under par as the stroke average was 70.06 on the par-71 layout.
Fritsch, a Canadian native via Campbell College in North Carolina, turned a good round into a great one with his play on his final three holes, where he birdied all three.
"We were walking down the 16th fairway, and my caddie was babbling, saying, 'We're not going to birdie the par 5 because we never birdie the par 5,'" Fritsch said. "I just said I wanted three putts added on the last three holes."
Fritsch hit each green in regulation and got his wish, his 64 his lowest round since he fired a 9-under 62 in the final round of the Chitimacha Louisiana Open, where he went on to tie for fifth.
"The season has been weird for me. I usually make a lot of cuts," he said. "It either seems I top-10 or miss the cut this year." Besides his top-10 in Louisiana, Fritsch added a tie for fifth at the BMW Charity Pro-Am (both showings are his career-best finishes on the Tour) and a tie for seventh at the Panama Claro Championship. To his point, though, he's also missed six cuts among his 13 starts.
After not playing on the weekend in his last tournament, at the United Leasing Championship, LaBelle was more than pleased with his round Thursday, which included a 20-foot downhill birdie putt on the 18th hole that helped him finish his back nine bogey-free, with three other birdies and an eagle making up his 6-under 30.
"I was trying to two-putt; just dribble it down there," he said of his final-hole birdie putt. "Thankfully, it went in. When it's your day, it's your day."
Three weeks ago, at the Mexico Open, LaBelle held the final-round lead with 15 holes to play. He went from the top of the leaderboard to a tie for 17th when, as he explained, his putter let him down.
"I've played some really good golf, tee to green, this year. But I haven't gotten anything out of it. Missing four- and six-footers will to that to you."
--The bogey-free rounds came from Shawn Stefani and Ron Whittaker. Stefani and Whittaker fired 67s, leaving them tied for 12th.
--Jeff Gove had a surprising round, as he made six bogeys and 12 pars for a 77. He has twice shot 62 at Willow Creek, including in the second round last year on his way to a second-place finish. His 77 broke a streak of eight consecutive under-par rounds for him at the Utah Championship.
--Shawn Edwards was disqualified for signing an incorrect scorecard.
--Even though there are five par 5s at Willow Creek, there were only five eagles. They came from James Nitties (No. 1), Rob Oppenheim (No. 3), Doug Labelle II (No. 12) and Matt Davidson and Rahil Gangjee (No. 17).
--The best birdie stretch of the day was three, by five separate players. But Morgan Hoffmann, one of three tied for the first-round lead, had a pair of three-birdie stretches during his round. He birdied the third, fourth and fifth holes and then added another streak at Nos. 10-12. Three players ended their rounds with back-to-back birdies. Brad Fritsch, James Sachek and David Vanegas all birdied Willow Creek's 16th, 17th and 18th holes. Aaron Watkins began his back nine by making birdies at the 10th, 11th and 12th holes.