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Blixt makes sizzling start to title defense

(Reuters) - Swede Jonas Blixt made a storming start to his title defense at The Greenbrier Classic in White Sulphur Springs, West Virginia on Thursday as he charged into a one-shot lead in the opening round.

Firing at the flags whenever possible on a calm morning in the Allegheny Mountains, the 30-year-old racked up eight birdies and two bogeys on the way to a six-under-par 64 on the Greenbrier's Old White Course.

That left him one ahead of New Zealand's Danny Lee and Americans James Hahn, Jason Bohn, Chris Kirk, D.A. Points, Patrick Rodgers, Jim Renner and Joe Durant, who tied for sixth at last week's Senior Players Championship, the year's third major on the over-50s Champions Tour.

American world number 18 Steve Stricker, who has been playing a limited schedule on the PGA Tour in recent years, carded a bogey-free 66 in his first tournament since last month's U.S. Open.

Blixt, who won last year's Greenbrier Classic by two shots after closing with a 67, was delighted with his overall strategy coming into his second ever title defense on the PGA Tour.

"I think I relaxed a little too much the first time," the Swede told Golf Channel, referring to his maiden victory on the U.S. circuit at the 2012 Frys.com Open and his tie for 51st at the event the following year.

"I was too comfortable. You've just got to realize it's a new golf tournament, they are four rounds to play and there's a bunch of players that can beat you.

"So I just went out there and tried to fire at everything," said Blixt, who totaled only 22 putts. "I made as many birdies as possible to get a head start. I got some good breaks and made some putts."

COURSE MANAGEMENT

Rodgers, who turned professional before the Travelers Championship two weeks ago and is playing on a sponsor's exemption at The Greenbrier, soared into contention after a solid display of course management in the opening round.

"I really hung in there ... placed the ball where I needed to and was able to get on a good run on the (second) nine," said Rodgers, who stormed home in four-under 30 after holing a wedge from 118 yards to eagle his 10th hole of the day, the par-four first.

"I'm continuing to get settled in here the last three weeks and I'm continuing to learn and improve. Hopefully I'll just build on today and continue to get better as the week goes on."

Tour veteran Stricker, making only his eighth start on the PGA Tour this season, recorded four birdies with his wife, Nicki, working as his caddie.

Asked to pinpoint the toughest challenge he faced as an irregular competitor on the PGA Tour, Stricker replied: "Knowing that your shots really do count.

"You spend a lot of time at home practicing and the shots don't really matter. You can hit one off line and it doesn't mean anything.

"And when you come out here, every shot means something. You've got to try and erase that out of your mind and do what you do at home and do what you do when you're practicing."

Stricker, whose best finish this season was a tie for sixth at the Memorial Tournament last month, felt he was doing a pretty good job in that regard.

"I have gotten used to that over the years," the 47-year-old smiled. "I haven't played much and I am kind of used to that fact. So I am excited about the start this week."

Masters champion and world number three Bubba Watson, who set up home with his family at the luxurious Greenbrier resort only a month ago, carded a 68 in the more difficult conditions of the afternoon when the wind began to pick up.

(Reporting by Mark Lamport-Stokes in Los Angeles; Editing by Frank Pingue)

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