PANAMA CITY, Panama -- Justin Hicks chalked up six birdies and an eagle en route to a 6-under 64 and the first-round lead at the Panama Claro Championship, the second stop on the 2012 Nationwide Tour schedule. Hicks battled the winds early in the day when scores were a bit lower and grabbed the clubhouse lead by one over Justin Bolli (65) and by two over Edward Loar (66), who were paired together. Martin Piller posted the best round of the afternoon, a bogey-free 66 that he finished shortly before darkness fell.
The Panama Golf Club course ranks among the toughest on Tour each year and Thursday's opener was typically tough. The par-70 layout has produced a scoring average of 73.000, marking the 31st time in 33 tournament rounds that the field was above par for the day. Only 20 players in the field of 132 managed to break par.
"I know tomorrow I'll have to deal with it and I like the wind because typically that's what I play in at home," said Hick, a resident West Palm Beach, Fla. "When I see the wind I don't get too freaked out about it. I just enjoy playing in it for some reason."
Hicks failed in his attempt to qualify Monday for The Honda Classic, this week's PGA TOUR event in his hometown, but found some encouragement from his game in Central America.
"I got a new putter last week and I started to see some putts go in as soon as I got it out of the box," he said. "The putter changed everything. Even in the qualifier I made six or seven birdies. When you start making birdies, you really give yourself opportunities to do stuff with this game."
Hicks had six and rolled in a 15-foot eagle at the par-5, 4th hole to make up for consecutive bogeys the previous two holes. Despite the solid opener, the former Michigan grad says it's still early in the week, and early in the year to get too excited.
"A friend of mine looks at these early events as a pre-season and I think I understand why. We're a little bit out of our element down here. You're messing around with new clubs, you're taking shuttles, you're in a foreign country. You have to be willing to roll with some punches so to speak," he said. "It's one round of golf, you've got three more to go."
Bolli also enjoyed success on the greens, rolling in a pair of 40-footers for birdies. The former Georgia Bulldog has never had too many good showings in the early part of the schedule.
"I've stopped trying so hard and putting pressure on myself to get off to a good start because I've never played that well," he said. "I used to think you needed a fast start but it's such a long year. You could be playing terrible right now and play great in June, July and August and then it doesn't matter if you're bad at the beginning of the year. I haven't contended early on and so I don't have any high expectations coming in here. Maybe I should play like that more often.
• Thursday's weather: Mostly sunny and windy. High of 92. Winds N-NW 10-20 mph.
• Travis Hampshire withdrew after 11 holes due to a shoulder injury.
• Michael Letzig (79) withdrew after the round.
• One player, Andres Echavarria of Colombia and the University of Florida, did not finish his round. The former Gator will return to the course at putt out at the 9th green at 8:15 Friday morning. He is currently 3-over par. His tee time for the second round is 8:40 a.m. The second round begins at 7:00 a.m.
• Bubba Dickerson aced the par-3, 17th hole today. Dickerson used a 9-iron at the 169-yard hole. It was the 10th hole-in-one in tournament history and the fourth on the downhill hole. Ricky Barnes (2006), Danny Briggs (2007) and David Hearn (2007) also made aces there in previous years. Dickerson finished with a 1-over 71.
• This is Justin Hicks' third start in this tournament. He finished T13 in 2009 thanks to a 6-under 64 in the third round. He also finished T57 in 2010. Hicks was a rookie on the PGA TOUR last year. He made seven cuts in 23 starts and wound up No. 179 on the money list. He missed the cut (73-71) at the Nationwide Tour's season opener -- the Pacific Rubiales Colombia Championship -- two weeks ago in Bogota.
• Head professional Mike Norman is making his eighth start in this event. Norman's best scores have been a pair of 71s -- 2007, 1st round and 2010, 1st round. He has not made the cut in any of his previous seven tries. Norman posted a 6-over 76.
• Miguel Carballo, the 2007 champion, got into the field at The Honda Classic in Florida when Ian Poulter withdrew. Carballo earned his PGA TOUR for 2012 by finishing No. 10 on the 2011 Nationwide Tour money list.
• Ryan Armour owns the course record -- a 9-under 61 in the second round last year.
• The first-round scoring average is currently 72.978, making it the highest opening day in the tournament's nine-year history. The previous high was 72.864 in 2008. Last year's second round (69.704) and third round (69.484) were the only two times that the field has been under par in a single round since the tournament began in 2004 (2 of 33 rounds, including today's round).
• Scoring averages for the week:
• The Nationwide Tour will head to Santiago, Chile for next week's inaugural Chile Classic presented by Pacific Rubiales at the Prince of Wales Country Club March 5-11.