July 4 (Reuters) - Invigorated by a new driver in his bag, Tommy Gainey made a welcome return to form as he charged into a share of the lead in Thursday’s opening round of the Greenbrier Classic at White Sulphur Springs in West Virginia.
The man known as “Two Gloves” for his habit of wearing black gloves on both hands when he plays fired a blistering eight-under-par 62 on a rain-softened layout, ending the day level with compatriot Johnson Wagner.
Former U.S. Open champion Webb Simpson and South Korean Park Jin also took advantage of preferred lies as they opened with 64s, though fan favourite and world number six Phil Mickelson, the highest-ranked player in the field, battled to a 74.
Gainey had come into the week languishing 150th in the PGA Tour’s driving accuracy charts but, armed with a new Callaway Optiforce driver, he hit of 13 of 14 fairways as he surged to the top of the leaderboard.
”If I can hit fairways, I can score, I can really play this game,“ Gainey told reporters after piling up eight birdies and totalling 25 putts in a bogey-free display. ”All of us can. All these guys out here, if we hit the fairways, we can score.
“If you don’t hit it in the fairway, you’re just trying to knock it on the green and make par because hitting it out of this rough is no fun.”
Gainey, who won his maiden PGA Tour at last year’s McGladrey Classic, buried memories of 13 missed cuts this season in 22 starts as he reeled off four consecutive birdies round the turn on the Greenbrier’s Old White Course to surge into contention.
“When you have soft greens and the rough is not too penal, you can really score low out there,” said the 37-year-old American, who is renowned for his unusual baseball-style swing.
“I just was one of the lucky ones to make some putts, hit some fairways, and we all know it’s all about making putts out here.”
Wagner briefly raised hopes of shooting a magical 59 after he chipped in from 30 yards to eagle the par-five 12th and get to eight under for the round, but had to settle for a 62 after parring the last six holes.
“I had a chance at 59 today, or so I thought, and it’s nice to be disappointed with 62 after being disappointed with 76s and 79s lately,” said the 33-year-old, a three-times winner on the PGA Tour.
“I hit a lot of good shots coming in, I had a lot of good looks. But I made good putts and I am really happy with the way I did everything coming in. No changes and no regrets.”
Wagner has mainly struggled this season, and came into this week on the back of six missed cuts in his previous seven starts.
Mickelson, seeking a 42nd career victory on the PGA Tour, has been in good form for much of this year but the American left-hander battled on the greens on Thursday.
“I am hitting every putt really solid but I am struggling reading these greens,” Mickelson said after mixing four birdies with five bogeys and an ugly triple at the par-five 17th where he hit his tee shot into water.
“I am having a hard time on those five, six-footers ... they look straight to me and they are moving quite a bit, so I am having a tough time adjusting to this golf course. It’s very subtle, subtly challenging.”
South African world number 10 Louis Oosthuizen opened with a 67 while 2012 Masters champion Bubba Watson carded a 68, ending the day level with his 63-year-old namesake Tom Watson, an eight-times major winner.
American Ted Potter Jr., who triumphed at the Greenbrier last year in his rookie season after beating compatriot Troy Kelly in a playoff, launched his title defence with a 69. (Reporting by Mark Lamport-Stokes in Los Angeles; Editing by Greg Stutchbury)