WHITE SULPHUR SPRINGS — When defending Greenbrier Classic champion Jonas Blixt posted his 6-under-par 64 in the morning hours of the first round Thursday, he thought somebody would beat it.
As the winds picked up and the course dried out, the Swede’s number slipped out of reach. Blixt and most of the small horde at 5 under took advantage of a soft course and no wind.
“If you can go out there and play [with] no wind, it definitely helps,” Blixt said. “You can attack everything and you don’t really have to consider anything, but I feel like you never really know [about the weather] here.”
He knew a lot about his short game, and the four-hole birdie binge that put him into the lead.
Playing the back nine first, he was 2 under when he chipped in from 23 feet on the par-4 16th. He hit to within 3 feet for birdie on the par-5 17th, sank a 21-foot putt on the par-3 18th and a 10-footer on the par-4 first.
On other holes, he was nearly automatic in saving pars. He hit just nine of 14 fairways and 10 of 18 greens in regulation, but his chipping was so proficient he needed only 22 putts. He almost chipped in for a birdie at the eighth, with the ball tapping the flagstick and stopping 2 feet away.
It was pretty much the same formula he used to win the 2013 Classic. He was third in that field in scrambling percentage, first in putting average, one-putt percentage and strokes gained/putting.
Blixt, who finished tied for second at the Masters this spring, had missed three of the last four cuts. He said his short game was not up to snuff.
“I’ve been working a lot on my ball-striking this year,” he said. “I think that has showed — if you look at my stats this year, I haven’t been chipping or putting as well as I have in the past. But I worked quite a bit on it last week, and I feel like I’m coming back to where I’ve been before.”
A crowd of eight players are tied for second at 65 — James Hahn, Jason Bohn, Joe Durant, Chris Kirk, D.A. Points, Patrick Rodgers, Jim Renner and Danny Lee. Only Renner and Lee had afternoon times, and birdied their final holes to get within a stroke of Blixt.
Rodgers, the Stanford star and college player of the year who just turned pro, is looking to earn full PGA Tour membership without going through the Web.com Tour. He also is looking to join the FedExCup playoffs with a tournament victory, such as Jordan Spieth did last summer.
It helped that Rodgers eagled the par-4 first hole, canning a 118-yard approach. He shot a 4-over 30 on the front nine, generally the tougher side on the Old White TPC.
“I had a great up-and-down on 18 and made a 15-footer for par, and I was trying to build on that momentum,” he said. “I hit a great drive down the middle and had just a little flip gap wedge down in there and flew it right behind the hole.
“It’s been a really long time since I made one from the fairway, so it was great to see it drop.”
Kirk, entering the week in seventh place in the FedExCup list, had a bogey-free round and went 2 under on the par-3s. Points also went 2 under on the par-3s, and both birdied the third and eighth — no small feat.
Hahn has made 24 cuts in a row over two years, but has only four top-10s to show for it.
“I did make a bogey on the first par-5 on the back nine and that kind of fired me up a little bit,” he said. “I wasn’t playing overly aggressive up to that point, but, taking a quick peek at the leaderboard, I saw Jonas Blixt was 6-under … I felt the need to be a little more aggressive and take advantage.”
Bohn has two career PGA Tour victories and three top-10s this year, and Durant is a 50-year-old who tied for sixth last week — on the Champions Tour.
Those who recorded the 65s in the afternoon wave, Lee and Renner, are among the Web.com Tour graduates from 2013. Lee struck with the putter, hitting from 33 and 19 feet on Nos. 7 and 8, respectively, and adding a 17-footer on the 10th.
Like Rodgers, Renner also scored a 4-under 30 on the front nine, which he played last. Like Blixt, he had one chip-in, on the par-4 second from 13 ½ feet.
“That kind of is what got me going a bit,” Renner said. “Gave myself a bunch of opportunities, and I was lucky enough to roll a few in.”
Eight are tied for 10th at 66, including Steve Stricker. Thirteen players are tied for 18th at 67, including veteran Davis Love III, Patrick Reed, Keegan Bradley and Bobby Wyatt, fresh out of college golf.
Bubba Watson is part of the group at 68. FedExCup points leader Jimmy Walker is at 70, which is one shot off the cut line to this point. Also at 70 are former Classic champs Scott Stallings and Ted Potter Jr.; Tom Watson and Nick Faldo are among the players at 71.
Marshall graduate and West Virginia Amateur champion Brian Anania is at 73.
In the Greenbrier’s role in the Open Qualifying Series, Hahn, Bohn, Renner and Lee hold the four qualifying spots for the British Open, with plenty of golf remaining. Rodgers and Durant miss out because of lower positions in the Official World Golf Ranking.
Kirk and Points are already in the Open, along with leader Blixt.
Reach Doug Smock at 304-348-5130, email@example.com or follow him at twitter.com/dougsmock.