Justin Hicks chalked up six birdies and an eagle en route to a 6-under 64 and the first-round lead at the Panama Claro Championship, the second stop on the 2012 Nationwide Tour schedule. Hicks battled the winds early in the day when scores were a bit lower and grabbed the clubhouse lead by one over Justin Bolli (65) and by two over Edward Loar (66), who were paired together. Martin Piller posted the best round of the afternoon, a bogey-free 66 that he finished shortly before darkness fell.
The Panama Golf Club course ranks among the toughest on tour each year and Thursday's opener was typically tough. The par-70 layout has produced a scoring average of 73.000, marking the 31st time in 33 tournament rounds that the field was above par for the day. Only 20 players in the field of 132 managed to break par.
Jim Herman, Tim Wilkinson, Steven Bowditch, Aaron Goldberg, Ryan Yip and Tyrone Van Aswegen all share fifth place, four back of the leader.
"I know tomorrow I'll have to deal with it and I like the wind because typically that's what I play in at home," said Hick, a resident of West Palm Beach, Fla. "When I see the wind, I don't get too freaked out about it. I just enjoy playing in it for some reason."
Hicks failed in his attempt to qualify Monday for the Honda Classic, this week's PGA Tour event in his hometown, but found some encouragement from his game in Central America.
"I got a new putter last week and I started to see some putts go in as soon as I got it out of the box," he said. "The putter changed everything. Even in the qualifier I made six or seven birdies. When you start making birdies, you really give yourself opportunities to do stuff with this game."
Hicks had six and rolled in a 15-foot eagle at the par-5 fourth hole to make up for consecutive bogeys the previous two holes. Despite the solid opener, the former Michigan grad says it's still early in the week, and early in the year to get too excited.
"A friend of mine looks at these early events as a pre-season and I think I understand why. We're a little bit out of our element down here. You're messing around with new clubs, you're taking shuttles, you're in a foreign country. You have to be willing to roll with some punches, so to speak," he said. "It's one round of golf, you've got three more to go."
Bolli also enjoyed success on the greens, rolling in a pair of 40-footers for birdies. The former Georgia Bulldog has never had too many good showings in the early part of the schedule.
"I've stopped trying so hard and putting pressure on myself to get off to a good start because I've never played that well," he said. "I used to think you needed a fast start but it's such a long year. You could be playing terrible right now and play great in June, July and August and then it doesn't matter if you're bad at the beginning of the year. I haven't contended early on and so I don't have any high expectations coming in here. Maybe I should play like that more often.
--Travis Hampshire withdrew after 11 holes due to a shoulder injury. Michael Letzig (79) withdrew after the round.
--Bubba Dickerson aced the 169-yard, par-3 17th hole with a 9-iron. It was the 10th hole-in-one in tournament history and the fourth on the downhill hole. Ricky Barnes (2006), Danny Briggs (2007) and David Hearn (2007) also made aces there. Dickerson finished with a 1-over 71.
--This is Justin Hicks' third start in this tournament. He finished tied for 13th in 2009 thanks to a 6-under 64 in the third round. He also tied for 57th in 2010. Hicks was a rookie on the PGA Tour last year. He made seven cuts in 23 starts and wound up No. 179 on the money list. He missed the cut (73-71) at the Nationwide Tour's season-opening Pacific Rubiales Colombia Championship two weeks ago in Bogota.
--This is the ninth year of the tournament and four players -- Ryan Hietala, Mike Norman, Rick Price and Fran Quinn -- are making their eighth starts. Quinn won this event two years ago.
--Ryan Armour owns the course record -- a 9-under 61 in the second round last year. The 72-hole record is 15-under 265, set by winner Fran Quinn in 2010. Mathew Goggin's winning score last year was 11-under 269.