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Steve Wheatcroft did not want to walk off the golf course Thursday at TPC Deere Run.

“I asked if we could just go to the first tee and start round two,” he said.

Buoyed by six straight birdies to conclude his day, Wheatcroft registered his best PGA Tour round in 166 career events with a 9-under 62 to hold the overnight lead at the $5.8 million John Deere Classic.

The 40-year-old missed seven consecutive cuts from November to February and has only one top-50 finish this season. He’s outside the top 200 of the FedEx Cup standings and ranked 927th in the Official World Golf Rankings.

“It’s been a brutal year,” Wheatcroft said. “It’s probably the worst year I’ve had so far, but I don’t feel like I’m playing the worst golf of my career.

“I actually feel like I’m playing good golf. I’m just not getting the results out of it.”

Wheatcroft, in the first group out Thursday, leads what is an obscure leaderboard. He has a one-shot advantage over Michael Kim and two strokes clear of four players — Johnson Wagner, Nick Taylor, Joel Dahmen and Andres Romero.

Those six players have an average world ranking of 440.83.

Defending champion Bryson DeChambeau pulled out after 15 holes because of a right shoulder injury. DeChambeau suffered the setback striking a 5-iron out of the right rough at the par-5 second.

After a wayward drive at No. 11, the pain intensified.

“I’m like, ‘Wow, something is not right,’” DeChambeau said.

DeChambeau stopped midway through his backswing on the tee box at the par-3 12th.

“It literally gave out,” he said. “I had nothing there.”

Then on the 16th, DeChambeau, at 3-over par, walked to the green after hitting his iron off the tee. He fixed his ball mark, picked up his ball, walked off the green and shook hands with his playing competitors.

“It’s really unfortunate, especially with how well I was hitting it coming into this week,” DeChambeau said. “Life just throws you curve balls and you just got to work with them.

“It’s not fun. I was thinking about it coming up here (to the fitness trailer). It’s saddening.”

Francesco Molinari, the field's highest-ranked player in the world rankings at No. 15, leads a group of four players at 6-under. Zach Johnson turned in a 2-under 69 and playing partner Steve Stricker had 70 as 95 players broke par.

Wheatcroft made back-to-back cuts coming into the JDC, but a couple wayward drives in each round derailed his momentum. He posted a final round 76 at the A Military Tribute At The Greenbrier, including a drive out of bounds on the 12th hole.

So on Wednesday, Wheatcroft had Callaway put a new head on his driver.

“I hadn’t played one hole of golf with it and just trusted it today,” he said. “It’s nice knowing that I could aim down the middle and it wasn’t going to be a wipe right.”

Wheatcroft hit 12 of 14 fairways, 17 of 18 greens and needed 27 putts in his bogey-free round.

He stepped to the 13th tee box at 3-under par … and then went on a birdie barrage.

Wheatcroft stuck approach shots at 13, 14 and 15 to within 6 feet for birdies. He buried a 26-footer at the par-3 16th, knocked in a 15-footer at the par-5 17th and closed with a 13-footer at the difficult par-4 18th.

“Incredible,” playing partner Patrick Rodgers said. “What a great round of golf. It is a golf course you can have a good stretch at any point in the round.”

Never inside the top 200 in the OWGR, Wheatcroft has won twice on the Tour and secured his PGA Tour card this season following a 21st-place finish on last year’s Tour final money list.

It was the first time Wheatcroft has broken 65 this season.

“I know if you look at my scores and my record for the year, you wouldn’t have believed it,” he said, “but I feel like it is close. Sixty-two didn’t surprise me today.”

Kim made nine birdies in his first 15 holes to match Wheatcroft but backed up with a bogey at the par-4 eighth.

With five missed cuts in his last six tournaments, Kim rode a hot putter. He made 144 feet worth of putts, highlighted by a 42-footer at No. 18.

“Rolled it great,” Kim said. “I’ve been struggling with the putter a little bit, but got a good mental note from the morning warmup today and rolled it great.”

Wagner and Taylor, both past PGA Tour winners, made nine and eight birdies, respectively, in their rounds of 64. 

Dahmen and Romero posted the low scores in the afternoon. Dahmen, in fact, shot a blistering 29 on the back side, including an eagle at the par-5 10th.

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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.