Claxton leads Christmas in October Classic

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Claxton's 8-under 63 was just one of many low scores in the damp conditions of the first round at the Christmas in October Classic.
August 20, 2009
Joe Chemycz, PGA TOUR Staff

Overland Park, Kan. -- Paul Claxton figured it was time to stop tinkering and get back to the things that have worked for him in the past. The 41-year old Georgian had been struggling for most of the year before deciding two weeks ago to go back to an old putter that helped him time after time. The results have been immediate. Claxton needed only 25 putts Thursday to shoot an 8-under-par 63 and grab the first-day lead in the inaugural Christmas in October Classic.

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Claxton's putting efforts resulted in 10 birdies and put him one up on Tom Gillis, winner of the Nationwide Tour Players Cup and the No. 4 money winner in 2009. Hunter Haas, leading money-winner Michael Sim, Garrett Osborn and Canadian Chris Baryla are two shots back at the Nicklaus Golf Club at LionsGate.

Heavy rains this week have dumped approximately five inches of rain on the par-71 layout southwest of downtown and forcing officials to allow lift, clean and place conditions for round one.

Jeff Brehaut, Steve Wheatcroft and Blake Adams are three strokes back of the leader.

"I've been switching putters and that's just not good," said Claxton who changed things up two weeks ago and immediately tied for sixth at the Preferred Health Systems Wichita Open. "We make it harder than it is. You'd think after all these years I would figure that out."

After missing nine cuts in his first ten starts and 13 of his first 16, the Vidalia resident called upon an "old faithful" to bail him out of a prolonged slump. He added another top-25 finish last week in Springfield, Mo., at the Price Cutter Charity Championship.

"I went through a bunch of other putters that didn't work," he said. "When you're making putts, you don't know why and when you're missing them, you don't know why either. They're just going in and I'm trying to enjoy that part of it."

Claxton enjoyed a career-best score, topping his previous mark of 64, which he'd done three times, most recently at the 2007 Fort Smith Classic.

While Claxton is enjoying the day, nobody seems to be having more fun than the 41-year old Gillis, who hasn't missed a cut in his eight starts this season and has already locked up a spot on the PGA TOUR next year. Gillis has a win, a second and tie for third in his last four starts.

Despite that, the Michigan native finds himself having trouble staying focused. Gillis has played all over the world and had two previous shots at the PGA TOUR after successfully surviving the qualifying tournament.

"I've probably never been as relaxed on the golf course as I am now," he said. "I've never been in this situation before. At times I feel flat starting the day out. It's been very difficult to keep my mind on the task at hand and what I'm trying to accomplish here. The previous times I didn't have six months to prepare. I had about three or four weeks."

Gillis' recent success has helped him push his season earnings to $270,796, which is more than enough make sure he's one of "The 25" Tour graduates in October.

"I've seen guys go through this," he said. "I've never lived it and I always wondered why they struggled after they get to a certain amount. Now, I could see why that could happen. You just start thinking about where you want to go next and you just get flat. I feel good though, but a seven-under score will do that for you."

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First-Round Notes:

• First-round tee times were delayed 30 minutes. Another inch of rain fell Wednesday afternoon and evening, bringing the total for the week to approximately five inches.

• Lift, clean and place conditions were in effect for the first round.

• The top 11 money winners and 21 of the 22 are entered this week. Number one Michael Sim was 7-under after a birdie at No. 17 but his 5-iron on the final hole found a greenside bunker and he missed his par attempt from six feet, settling for a 6-under 65. Sim is coming off a T51 finish at last week's PGA Championship in Minnesota. The 24-year old Australian also tied for 18th in the U.S. Open at Bethpage in New York, his only other PGA TOUR event this year.

Ryan Armour had a nice turnaround Thursday morning. The Ohio State grad was 4-over through his first 11 holes after a double-bogey at No. 10 but then rallied with six birdies on the final seven holes, including the last four, to finish at 2-under 69.

• A total of 15 players took advantage of the wide fairways and soft conditions and hit all 14 fairways off the tee today. Another 18 players missed only one fairway.

Paul Claxton has held/shared the first-round lead four times previously in his career. The last time he did it was at the 2007 Peek'n Peak Classic, where he finished second. Claxton, a veteran of 306 career starts, has won twice on Tour but neither came as a first-day leader.

Blake Adams posted a 5-under 66 to start a new streak. Adams saw his stretch of consecutive rounds at par-or-better end at 24 on Sunday with a 1-over 73 in the final round of the Price Cutter Charity Championship. Adams' run of 24 rounds is the best such streak on Tour in 2009. Adams is No. 4 on the season money list and has made the cut in 11 of 13 starts with six top-10 finishes.

• Harry Higgs, who should be starting his senior year at nearby Blue Valley North High School this week, posted a 2-under 69 on his home course. Higgs was given a sponsor exemption into the tournament after winning a junior qualifier at Kansas City Country Club. Higgs, 17, and his family are club members and have a home near the 11th hole at LionsGate. Higgs hit 12 of 14 fairways, 11 of 18 greens and had 28 putts in his Tour debut. Higgs' caddie today was Curtis Yonkee, the grandson of eight-time PGA TOUR and 20-time Champions Tour winner Jim Colbert. Yonkee could caddie only one day before he leaves to begin his freshman year at Kansas State, where he will be on a golf scholarship.

Justin Bolli, winner of last week's event, posted a 2-under 69 today.

• Six players were bogey-free in round one: Garrett Osborn (65), Chris Baryla (65), Steve Wheatcroft (66), Blake Adams (66), Jeff Gove (68) and Jason Knutzon (69).

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