SAO PAULO, Brazil – Richard S. Johnson of Sweden, New Zealand’s Danny Lee and Tom Hoge of the United States all posted 6-under 65s Thursday to share the first-round lead at the inaugural Brasil Classic on the Web.com Tour.
The three are one stroke better than veteran Carlos Franco, Kelly Kraft, Lee Bedford, Zack Miller and local favorite Rafael Barcellos. The Sao Paulo Golf Club course measures only 6,574 yards and the field took advantage of the shorter holes and softer greens to come up with a jumbled leaderboard.
Another 15 players – including Alex Rocha of Sao Paulo and host professional Erik Andersson – are packed together at 4-under 67. Fifteen more are in at 68, which puts 38 players within three shots of the lead.
The first-round scoring average for the par-71 layout was 70.736.
“You don’t have to bomb it around out here, but you’ve got to keep it out of the rough,” said Johnson, who was in the second group off in the morning. “It was really a very stress-free round. I’m feeling comfortable on this course. I guess I played good here in the past.”
Johnson, 36, played a couple of European Tour events on this same course more than a decade ago, but that didn’t help this time around.
“I checked before I came down here. I’ve been here twice, but I have no memory of playing the course,” said Johnson, who tied for second in the 2001 Sao Paulo Brazil Open. “I don’t know if that’s good or bad, but as long as I keep shooting good scores, I don’t really care.”
Lee, a former U.S. Amateur champion, is off to another solid start, something that’s become an early trend in the 2013 campaign. This time, however, it was his putting that helped him push his way to a piece of the lead.
“I’ve started using the line on my ball again. It’s really helped me with my alignment,” he said. “I was using it as an amateur and I’m not sure why I stopped. I used to just put the ball down and try to make a perfect stroke. Now, I don’t worry about the line. All I’ve got to do is think about the distance.”
Hoge was among the late finishers and echoed the sentiment that the course, while shorter than most, still presents some problems.
“I like it because it’s unlike anything we play on Tour,” said the TCU graduate. “It may be shorter, but you really have to hit every shot great. If you lose your focus on one shot and hit it bad, the easiest holes become really hard because of the trees. I hit a lot of 4-irons knowing I have to get it in the fairway or I’m in trouble.”
Johnson and Franco have several things in common, in addition to their fine play Thursday. The most notable is that they are past winners of the same PGA Tour event – the U.S. Bank Championship in Milwaukee. Johnson won the tournament in 2008. Franco won it twice, in 1999 and again in 2004.
Johnson played in two European Tour events at Sao Paulo Golf Club a few years back. In 2000, he tied for 11th behind winner Padraig Harrington at the Brazil 500 Years Open, and tied for second behind winner Darren Fichardt in the 2001 Sao Paulo Brazil Open.
Franco won the Brazil Open on the Tour de las Americas (now PGA Tour LatinoAmerica), including the 2001 event, which was also played on the Sao Paulo GC course.
--Brazil’s Alex Rocha, a PGA Tour member who finished 131st on the 2012 money list, filled the expectations surrounding him as local favorite by carding a 4-under 67. Although the nerves slowed him down early, Rocha managed to relax and made his move with birdies on 10, 13, 16 and 17.
“There’s a great deal of expectations (playing at home), on top of the expectations that I put on myself to begin with,” said Rocha, who joined the PGA Tour in 2011 to become the first member from Brazil in nearly two decades. “As a result I was really tight today, especially at the beginning. It took me a few holes to kind of relax and take a deep breath and go from there.”
In addition to Rocha, there are ten other Brazilian players in this week’s field.
--Competing on a sponsor exemption this week and making his third Web.com Tour start of the season, Chile’s Benjamin Alvarado posted a 4-under 67. Starting from the 10th tee this morning, he shot even par on his first nine, but then charged with birdies at Nos. 3, 4, 5 and 7.
Alvarado, a PGA Tour Latinoamerica member, tied for fourth at the Chile Classic four weeks ago and is looking to earn Special Temporary Membership status on the Web.com Tour this season. He collected $28,600 for his efforts in Chile and needs to match or surpass the equivalent of No. 100 on the 2012 money list ($54,799 by Michael Connell) to gain his status.
“After missing the cut in Louisiana this event was not in my plans, but I received a sponsor exemption on Saturday and made the trip here the following day. I didn’t hit a club last week and I believe the break helped my game,” said the 27-year old from Santiago who also tied for third three weeks ago at the Mexico Open.
--Matt Fast didn’t repeat his practice round success in the opening round. Fast struggled to a 4-over 75 and his score did not include a hole-in-one. The 26-year-old Mississippi State grad made aces on both Monday and Tuesday.
“I come to Brazil and my first two days here I make a hole-in-one,” he said. “That brings my career total to three. Two rounds in Sao Paulo and two aces. Twenty or thirty thousand rounds in the U.S. and only one.”
Fast canned a 9-iron in at the 147-yard second hole on Monday.
“I called that one in the air,” he said. “It was one hop and in.”
He then holed a 7-iron at the 174-yard 12th hole the very next day. Witnessing both was buddy Mark Silvers.
“Can you pair us together in the tournament?” Silvers asked. “I think we’ll do pretty well if you do.”
Fast is making his second career start on the Web.com Tour – he missed the cut at the Chile Classic last month. Silvers, a 2009 South Carolina graduate, shot a 6-over 77. The 26-year old rookie missed the cut at the Colombia Championship and the Chile Classic.
--Kevin Foley, winner of the season-opening Panama Claro Championship and No. 4 on the money list, stumbled through a birdie-free round and posted a 9-over 80. Foley had two triple bogeys, a double bogey and a bogey for his highest score in 22 career starts.