Putnam, Wilkinson set pace at News Sentinel Open

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KNOXVILLE, Tenn.— Prior to the start of the News Sentinel Open presented by Pilot, Michael Putnam had not been swinging well and put in a long stint on the range Wednesday prior to the first round to try to sort out his issues. He then promptly went out in the opening round Thursday morning and made bogey on a hole, No. 10, he called “probably the easiest on the course.” With that little bogey mishap out of the way, Putnam was 7-under the rest of his round, shooting a 6-under 65 to join Tim Wilkinson at the top of the leaderboard.

“I hit it right in the middle of the fairway off the tee, I had 235 (yards) to the pin and made five from there,” Putnam said of the par-5 opening hole. “Honestly, at that point, I was thinking maybe I ought to go home. It was that bad.”

Putnam is not a two-time Web.com Tour winner in 2013 and the season money-list leader for no reason. “After that hole, I played flawless golf,” he added, noting that part of his “flawless” final 17 holes at Fox Den Country Club was the three-foot birdie he made to close his round on his 18th hole of the day.

“I had the same strategy today that I’ve had every year I’ve been here,” said Putnam, who is making his sixth appearance in the tournament. “I’m hitting the same clubs and leaving myself with the same distances. I’ve learned the course over the years.”

Wilkinson has severely cut back his playing schedule this season, with solid results. He’s ninth on the money list. This is only his 15th event of the campaign, having played 27 and 23 tournaments in the previous two years, respectively. “I missed one green today, and I missed only two fairways. That made it pretty easy today.

“Easier,” he then clarified, with a laugh of his seven-birdie, one-bogey performance. Wilkinson has five top-10s this season, including a runner-up performance at the weather-shortened Stadion Classic at UGA in May. “I took off last week and worked pretty hard on my game. I’ve done that a lot this year. Normally I play everything,” he explained. “When I feel myself getting tired and my game is not as sharp as it could be, I’ve taken a week off and gone home and worked.”

Tied for third a stroke back are the Smiths—Byron and Nate (no relation)—along with Monday qualifier, Blayne Barber. They all fired 5-under 66s. Barber, an Auburn product, had never seen the course until Tuesday after qualifying at Tennessee National Golf Club.

“I played 18 on Tuesday (practice round), but that’s it,” he said of his experience at Fox Den. “But I’ve been playing great the last three weeks now. I’ve had a lot of good, solid rounds of golf. I feel like I’m controlling my emotions and golf game well.”

In the group of eight tied for sixth — all with 67s — is Sejun Yoon, who played with Barber and also Monday-qualified his way into the tournament. For Yoon, it is his Web.com Tour debut. The South Korean who graduated from Rancho Buena Vista High in Vista, Calif., and lives in San Diego, was flirting with the lead until bogeying two of his last three holes. He has played four PGA TOUR Canada events this season, making one cut.

First-Round Notes

-- Putnam’s opening, 6-under 65 is his career-low round at the News Sentinel Open. His 65 bettered the 67 he had in the first round of the 2009 tournament. In 2009, he came back the next day to shoot a 74 to miss his only cut in five previous News Sentinel Open appearances.

-- In Putnam’s two 2013 victories, he held the first-round lead at the Mexico Open (64, led by two shots) and was tied for 48th through 18 holes at the Mid-Atlantic Classic after opening with a 71.

-- For the second week in a row, 2011 Web.com Tour money-list leader J.J. Killeen shot a low first round, firing a 4-under 67 to sit in a tie for sixth in Knoxville. He opened with a 66 at last week’s Price Cutter Charity Championship before fading into a tie for 57th. His best performance this season is a tie for 24th in June at The Rex Hospital Open.

-- No player in the 24 previous News Sentinel Opens has shot an over-par opening round and gone on to win. Four players —Tom Scherrer (1995), Darron Stiles (2002), Hunter Haas (2004) and Kim Felton (2005) —all fired 1-under 71s in their opening rounds on their way to victory.

-- Guy Boros is making his 11th start in the event, and his first-round, 4-under 67 (tied for sixth) is his best opening performance here since he shot a 6-under 66 on his way to a tie for 16th. In six weekend appearances among his 10 previous Knoxville starts, he only has one round in the 60s (69, third round, 1999). Conversely, he’s had eight sub-70 rounds in his 21 Thursday or Friday rounds.

-- Blayne Barber, who is tied for third through 18 holes, plays numerous practice rounds with fellow Auburn alum and recent PGA Championship winner Jason Dufner when they’re home in Auburn, Ala. “Duf’s a good friend of mine, and we practice together. To see him [win the PGA] on Sunday was really cool, and it definitely had me lying in bed Sunday night knowing that it’s possible. He’s a great guy and a hard worker,” Barber said.

-- Bogey-free rounds:

First Round (8): Reid Edstrom, Ashley Hall, Kent Jones, J.J. Killeen, Whee Kim, Peter Lonard, Richard Scott and Nate Smith
-- There are four previous News Sentinel Open champions playing this week. Here is how they fared after the first round:

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