Jason Kokrak and Daniel Chopra, a pair of tournament winners this year, posted 8-under 63s and share the first-round lead in the Miccosukee Championship on the Nationwide Tour.
Kokrak, winner of the Albertsons Boise Open last month, was the first player off the tee in the morning and put together a bogey-free effort that held up for most the opening round at the Miccosukee Golf & County Club.
Chopra, winner of the Fresh Express Classic back in April, dunked a wedge from 112 yards on the final hole for an eagle-2 and a spot at the top.
“It’s one of those that just looks so good, you’re hoping it’s the right distance,” said Chopra, who was making up for a bogey at the previous hole. “This makes dinner taste better, that’s all it does for me. It’s just a number on the board now.”
Brett Wetterich, winner of the Chitimacha Louisiana Open back in March, heads a group of six players tied for third at 6-under 65. Tyrone Van Aswegen, Mark Anderson, Scott Sterling, Cameron Percy and Diego Velasquez are also two back of the co-leaders.
Nine players – including defending champion Jason Gore – are in at 5-under 66.
Wetterich had, perhaps, the most interesting round of the bunch. The 38-year-old got a call in the pre-dawn hours that his wife was going into labor – 1,100 miles away in Cincinnati
“It was tough,” he said of his day that included four straight birdies to close out his round. “I was thinking about Erin a bunch today and wish I could be there with her. She wasn’t due until Monday and I was hoping it wouldn’t happen until then. We talked about it and we came up with a plan. She knows I need to be here, even though I’d rather be there.”
The 38-year-old sat down to lunch when he got the call that his wife had just given birth to the couple’s second child, and first son.
“If I was 10th on the money list or better, I probably wouldn’t have come this week,” said Wetterich, who is No. 24 with only three weeks left in the season. “I’m not in that position and this is a critical point in the year. We came up with a plan and we stuck with it. I’ll see them first chance I get.”
Kokrak is No. 15 on the money list and comes into the week much more relaxed after taking a breather from competition. Despite a head cold and congestion, the time away was a bonus for the 26-year-old from Ohio, now living near Orlando. He went an entire week without hitting a shot.
“It was such a whirlwind after winning in Boise,” he said. “There was a lot of stuff going on the next week, then I wound up missing the cut the next week because I was just going through the motions. I didn’t play bad but my head wasn’t in it.”
His head is clean and his concentration was up to par on Thursday and on display at the shortened, par-4 seventh hole. Kokrak, No. 1 on Tour in Average Driving Distance (322 yards) figured he’d gamble because the tee was moved forward and it measured about 320 yards to the front edge of the green.
What he didn’t figure was knocking the ball over the green and into the water.
“We had a helping wind and I thought I could get it pretty close,” he said. “I took my drop on the cart path, then took relief from the path and then just heaved it up on the green and it rolled right in the hole. It was an odd birdie, for sure.”
Odd or not, it helped stake him to a lead that looked solid until Chopra’s closer.
Chopra needs a good finish this week. The 37-year-old from Sweden was No. 2 on the money list when he won in California but has been sinking slowly ever since.
“I think I may have been trying too hard. I might have put too much pressure on myself,” he said. “I felt that I had gotten off to such a great start that I have to take advantage of it. I honestly don’t care now. I’ve cared the whole year and I’ve been slipping and falling further and further back. Now I’m at the point where I say to hell with it, just go out and finish the year off.”
Maybe not the year, but the transplanted Floridian sure knew how to finish his round off in style.
--23 of the top-25 money winners are competing this week. The only two missing are Danny Lee (No. 4) and John Malliner (No. 9). This week’s field also includes 46 of the top 50 and 93 of the top 100 money winners.
--Miguel Carballo, winner of last week’s Children’s Hospital Classic, shot a 2-under 69 and is tied for 40th.
--Defending champion Jason Gore birdied his final hole for a 5-under 66. Gore has seen limited play this year because of nagging shoulder issues.
--Jamie Lovemark, the 2010 Nationwide Tour Player of the Year, is making his first start in several months. Lovemark has been plagued by back problems and hasn’t played since he withdrew after shooting an 80 in the opening round of the Shell Houston Open. Lovemark shot a 1-over 72 and is tied for 108th.