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Roberto Diaz was in the last group off the first tee Thursday afternoon at the John Deere Classic.

As Diaz strolled up the 18th hole late in the evening, television coverage had concluded. The skyboxes were virtually empty and about only 50 people remained to witness his final hole.

What everybody else missed was a masterful performance.

Diaz rode a precise driver and hot putter to seven birdies and holed out from 99 yards for eagle at the par-5 10th to claim the first-round lead at TPC Deere Run with a 9-under 62.

“I just feel that everything clicked today,” Diaz said.

Seeking his first PGA Tour win in his 50th start, Diaz has a two-stroke advantage over Adam Long and Russell Henley. There are six players three shots back at 6 under.

Diaz changed clubs and put new shafts in his bag in late January. Since then, he has seen an uptick in his game.

The 32-year-old was inside the top 20 at AT&T Pebble Beach and Puerto Rico. Diaz was eighth at the Travelers Championship last month, his best finish of the year.

“The driver has been awesome,” Diaz said. “I’ve been hitting a lot of fairways, and today I hit good numbers all day. That helps.”

Diaz, who is 157th in the FedEx Cup standings and 430th in the Official World Golf Rankings, has spent extensive time working on his short game in recent weeks.

Besides hitting 12 of 14 fairways and 14 of 18 greens, Diaz had two sand saves and needed only 23 putts in his round.

“I think the work that I’ve been putting in the last couple weeks, it’s starting to pay off,” Diaz said. “Obviously, it is crunch time, and I’m trying to get into the playoffs.”

In his only other start at the JDC, Diaz withdrew after the opening round last year.

He is on track to stick around much longer this week. 

“I just have to be patient,” Diaz said. “I just haven’t been patient throughout the year. I tend to be impatient whenever I’m putting, and I don’t really give myself a lot of chances to make the putts.”

Diaz understands Thursday is just a starting point.

“You just feel that you have to put the pedal to the metal and keep going,” he said. “Tomorrow, it might be somebody else shooting 62 or 61.

“I don’t think this Tour allows you to hold back and be relaxed.”

Long bounced between tours for almost seven years. He did time on the Mackenzie Tour, PGA Tour Latinoamerica and the Web.com Tour.

After finally earning his PGA Tour card last year, job security is no longer a concern for the 31-year-old.

Long won earlier this year at the Desert Classic in his sixth start to secure full-time status through the 2020-21 season.

The Duke graduate, in his JDC debut, rolled in eight birdies and had just one bogey.

Henley reached 8-under par with four birdies in a five-hole stretch but gave a shot back at the par-4 ninth (his final hole) tie Long for second heading into Friday's round.

“(Confidence) has been there for the most part,” Long said. “I haven’t gotten too down in the dumps. It is nice to shoot a low one like that, and hopefully it propels you moving forward.”

It was Long’s lowest round on Tour since that life-changing win.

He had missed the cut in 11 of his previous 17 tournaments coming to the Quad-Cities.

“It’s been a learning curve for me all year,” Long said. “It’s been one thing after another. Each week is new to me, trying to find where the locker room is new to me.

“It’s been a tough grind, but it is fun now.”

Andrew Landry, tied for eighth here in 2016, had a clean scorecard with six birdies and no bogeys. He’s had only two top-25 finishes in 21 starts this season.

“Everything went really well today,” Landry said. “It’s been a while since that’s happened.

“I know eventually I’m going to play well and be up there in contention on Sunday at this place. I just don’t know when it’s going to be. Hopefully, it’s this week.”

There were 98 players to break par in the opening round. Among them was last week’s winner, 20-year-old Matthew Wolff.

Wolff parred his first nine holes before reeling off birdies at Nos. 1, 2 and 3. He added another birdie at the par-4 eighth to finish at 4-under.

It was a par save that gave Wolff some momentum. He made a 30-footer for par at the 18th after driving the ball into the fairway bunker.

“I wasn’t really making anything,” Wolff said. “I was hitting it good, which is always nice and something I rely on, but putts just didn’t really seem to drop. And (on) 18 I kind of snuck it in and gave me some confidence.”

Defending champion Michael Kim, who has 18 consecutive missed cuts, opened with a 2-over 73. Zach Johnson, the 2012 winner, had his streak of 41 consecutive rounds at par or better at Deere Run end with a 72. 

They are all chasing Diaz, who walked off the course just after 7 p.m.

“Right now, I’m really hungry,” he said. “I just want to go eat.”

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Sports Editor

Prep sports editor, with emphasis on covering the Mississippi Athletic Conference and Iowa area high schools. I've been in sports journalism for 17 years, the last five at the Quad-City Times.