Thursday
Jul112019

Diaz hungry for more than victory

Writing from Silvis, Illinois

Thursday, July 11, 2019

Roberto Diaz turned professional in 2009. For the decade between then and now, he’s been searching for a victory that comes with both a big trophy and a big check.

Thursday was his 282nd round on the PGA Tour. He used it to carve up the John Deere Classic field, firing a 9-under-par 62 – his career low on the circuit by three strokes – to take a two-stroke lead over Adam Long and Russell Henley into Friday’s second round.

Diaz, who toured each side of TPC Deere Run in 31 strokes, was in the last group to finish. He’d rather do that on Sunday.

For the nonce, he just wants to keep playing as he did under the warm sun and negligible winds of the late afternoon and early evening, with power and touch, a combination that can take a player far.

Diaz hit 14 greens, but his best play of the day, one even better than his 99-yard pitching wedge hole-out for eagle on the par-5 10th, came on the par-5 17th, where he used local knowledge gained in the morning to baby a difficult 40-yard chip shot with considerable borrow from the front left of the green to within 18 inches of the cup.

A hole-out involves a bit of luck. A touch shot is pure skill and talent.

“This morning, I watched a couple of guys on the PGA Tour Live app play that,” Diaz said. “I told my caddie I just wanted to get it on the hill and let it trickle down. I hoped to get it to 10 feet.”

That jumped him to 9-under and two strokes up on Long and Henley, who were at dinner when Diaz was coming up the 18th fairway.

“Right now I’m really hungry,” said the 32-year-old native of Mexico. “Dinner will be fajitas.”

They will rarely have tasted better. Diaz has played better in recent weeks – he finished in a tie for eighth at the Travelers – but finishing has proved problematic. Not Thursday, where an adjustment in his putting methodology resulted in a 23-putt day.

“If your speed matches your line, you have a better chance,” said Daiz, echoing too many teachers to count. “I’d been hitting putts too hard. My caddie said to me, ‘Try to die them in.’ Today, I think I hit one putt too far. Otherwise, they were all to two to three feet. That makes your round more relaxed.”

Nine one-putt greens and two no-putt greens – he ran in a 19-footer from the fringe for a birdie on the fifth hole, which technically doesn’t count as a putt – made his score drop like a bad stock.

Everything went right for Diaz in his bogey-free round, and not too badly for Long and Henley, either. Long’s eight-birdie, one-bogey assault was the best of the morning on the course, after which Henley matched it and Diaz surpassed it.

Long isn’t a rookie like Matthew Wolff (tied for 20th with an opening 67), Collin Morikawa (tied for 78th with an opening 70) or some of the other new kids on the golf block. He’s from Diaz’s generation, 31 and a veteran of several years on what’s now the Korn Ferry Tour. But Long scored a victory in the Bob Hope Desert Classic in January, in only his seventh PGA Tour start, which instilled in him a sense of belonging.

Confidence? That’s another thing. Long admits to having doubts at times. Never mind that he has a trophy.

“It’s the most humbling game in the world,” Long said. “As soon as you hit the best shot you’ve every hit, you hit the worst shot you ever hit. As soon as you make an eagle, you make a double. We’ve all done it. It’s just how hard the game is that you can’t keep it for long.”

Long was 7-under on the 14 holes where he hit the green in regulation or less, and even, with a birdie and his long bogey of the day, on the four where his approach was wayward. But when you can one-putt eight greens and take only 26 putts, you’ll gain on the field.

“Kind of been my downfall the last week or two,” Long said. “I worked with my coach Josh Gregory the last couple days. The same stuff I always kind of battle with. Just keeping the putter face from turning over too much, keeping it a little more steady.”

Henley is seeking his first victory since the 2017 Houston Open. He hasn’t finished better than a tie for 15th this season, that at the Phoenix Open, but the 64 he stitched together on Deere Run’s leafy acreage is, even with a bogey at his last hole, his best score of the season. It came after he’d missed the cut in five of his last six appearances.

“It really just wasn’t a very stressful round,” Henley said. “I didn’t feel like I had to work too hard to make par.”

Six players, including Ryan Palmer, are tied for fourth at 6-under 65.

Around Deere Run

There are two players with the last name of Kim in the field: Whee Kim, who scored 3-under 68, and defending champion Michael Kim, who might as well be known as Woe Kim. Uninvited for a pre-tournament interview, Kim opened with a 2-over 73. He’ll likely need 67 or better on Friday to make the cut, which would be his first success of the season. Kim would be the fourth straight defending champion to miss the weekend. Brian Harman won in 2014 and made the cut in 2015. Since then, Jordan Spieth didn’t defend in 2016 and Bryson DeChambeau withdrew last year. ... Zach Johnson’s 1-over 71 ended a string of 41 under- or even-par rounds at Deere Run. His last over-par jaunt was a 4-over 75 in the third round of the 2008 JDC. ... Former Fighting Illini favorite Dylan Meyer, one of the four-spot qualifiers on Monday, birdied the last to finish at 1-over 72. ... Stephan Jaeger cited an injured thumb for withdrawing after 11 holes, his last the par-5 second, where he took a triple-bogey 8. ... The field averaged 69.600 strokes, the third lowest first round since the tournament shifted to Deere Run in 2000. Thirteen of the 18 holes played under par. There were four eagles on the par-4 14th, a downhill bomber’s paradise that was a drivable 321-yard test. ... Andres Romero had the drive of the day, a 396-yard poke on the par-5 second.

Tim Cronin

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