The Cox Classic has been a staple on the Omaha sports calendar for 16 years and the theme is always the same at Champions Run -- putt well and make a lot of birdies. The average winning score for the first 15 years has been 21.6 strokes under par.
Thursday’s opening round proved the rule once again as par took another beating. The scoring average of 68.654 was more than three full strokes below par and the lowest first-round average in tournament history.
Sitting atop the leaderboard is 38-year-old Tommy Biershenk of South Carolina, who matched his career best with a 9-under 62. Former Clemson teammate Elliot Gealy posted his career-low round with an 8-under 63 to move into a second-place tie with Matt Weibring, who closed out a morning round with five consecutive birdies and Aaron Goldberg, who finished his day with a 6-under 30 on the back nine.
The logjam then begins to take shape with nine players tied at 7-under 64, including 1999 champion and current leading money-winner Mathew Goggin. Eight more are at 6-under 65.
“It’s one of those kind of courses and tournaments that you have to shoot 6 or 7 under every day just to be competitive,” said Goggin, who is seeking his third victory in 2011. “You don’t want to get over par early.”
Not many have. There are 114 players in the field of 156 below par and 128 at par or better after the initial 18. Twenty players toured the rain-softened, 7,161-yard layout without making a bogey.
Biershenk leads the way after changing putters and adjusting his attitude. The equipment change consisted of taking the same putter but swapping a line for a dot.
“I get caught up in trying to line up,” he said. “We tightened my elbows up, we pulled them in and tried to get more one piece.”
With a new club in the bag, Biershenk also worked on the mental side of the game. Despite making 11 cuts in 14 starts this year and a spot at No. 29 on the money list, his goal is to relax a little more.
“I’ve hit a lot of close shots on the golf course a lot of times and I can’t find a way to get the ball in the hole,” he said. “It comes down to me just trying too hard. If I can find a way to play like I did today and just get over the putts, relax and let the hole get in the way, I think that’s certainly an easier way to play golf.”
Maybe it was a Clemson thing because Gealy, who was a freshman with the Tigers when Beirshenk was a senior, did pretty much the exact same thing.
He too, changed putters and made some mental changes this week in hopes of seeing better results. He has missed the cut in five of his last six starts, including three in a row following a start at the U.S. Open in June.
“I think the last six rounds I’ve had one round in the 20s and a lot of 32- and 33-putt days,” said Gealy, who needed only 24 on his way to bettering his previous low round. “It comes down to simplifying things down. Whenever you’re putting bad or not hitting it well you try to think about 10 million different things. Just simplify things – pick a target, feel the speed and roll the ball. I just trusted what I saw and went with it.”
He had a front-row seat for 11 one-putt greens, including a stretch of seven in a row.
“I looked at my caddie and said ‘so this is what if feels like to make some putts,’” he said. “It just makes golf a little less stressful and you feel like you can shoot lower scores.”
Weibring’s feelings are centered more around pain these days, or rather pain-free days. The 31-year-old son of PGA Tour standout D.A. Weibring is rounding back into form after undergoing extensive hip surgery last August. He spent almost seven weeks on crutches and was away from the game for five months. The hip surgery came a year after knee surgery, which was preceded by two surgeries on an ailing wrist.
“It bothered me for four or five years but it got progressively worse every year. I probably should have gotten it looked at way before I did,” he said. “The doctor said if I had kept playing, another year or two and I would have needed a hip replacement.”
He’s now back playing full time and will spend the rest of this season on the Nationwide Tour in hopes of regaining full status on the PGA Tour.
“I’m going to stick with one tour and hopefully get some momentum going,” he said. “One or two weeks and I’m right in the mix.”