Ken Duke and Cameron Tringale topped the Zurich Classic leaderboard at 7-under 65 on Thursday, leaving defending champion Bubba Watson six strokes back at TPC Louisiana in his first tournament since winning the Masters.
Tringale birdied the final four holes and finished the round with eight birdies and a bogey. Duke had seven birdies in a bogey-free round. Both players are winless on the PGA Tour.
"My game felt really nice for quite some time and don't know how to explain it," Tringale said. "Just playing with a little confidence and it goes a long way in this game. ... When I had chances to make birdies I was making them and made a couple 20-footers as well. So, turned into a good day."
Steve Stricker, Ernie Els, Daniel Chopra and Chris Stroud were a stroke back at 66. Ben Curtis, the Texas Open winner Sunday in San Antonio, was another shot behind along with John Rollins and Jason Dufner.
Webb Simpson, a playoff loser last year in the event, had a 68.
Watson had four birdies and three bogeys in his 71.
Watson, playing the back nine first, was 2 over through the first seven holes. He birdied the par-5 18th and followed with three more birdies and a bogey on the front nine.
"I'm very exhausted, tough trying to play golf today," said Watson, who took a two-week break after the Masters. "I can't hit a full swing yet. I knew I needed to be here being the defending champ for the local fans. So I'm here, but mentally I'm not here."
Second-ranked Luke Donald opened with a 73.
David Hearn of Brantford, Ont., and Graham DeLaet of Weyburn, Sask., are three shots back at 68. Calgary's Stephen Ames opened with a 70. David Byrne of Essex, Ont., finished with a 78.
Tringale, coming off eighth-place finishes in the Houston Open and Texas Open, made the turn at 2 under and had a 5-under 31 on the back nine, highlighted by a 25-foot birdie putt on the par-4 15th and a 20-footer on the difficult par-3 17th.
Duke, attempting to make the most of his opportunity after a two-year exile on the Nationwide Tour, made three consecutive birdies on the front nine to make the turn at 3 under and birdied the par-5 11th and par-4 12th to get it to 5 under. He added birdies on the par-4 16th and par-5 18th.
"The greens were good. Weren't too fast," Duke said. "You can't have them too fast here because of the wind and it will really will smack you. They're hole-able, receptive. The course is in good shape, great shape."
Chopra, a two-time tour winner who has failed to make a cut this season, put himself in position to regain full-time status. The 66 was his first round in the 60s this season.
"The game has been fine, the results have been frustrating," he said. "The harder you press in this game the tougher it gets and when you get momentum going one way or the other, it's hard to break it, and I've been handling it the wrong way."
Sticker, playing alongside Watson and Simpson, birdied four of his final five holes and saved his round with a nifty up and down on his final hole, the par-3 ninth. After his tee shot landed short and right of the green, he chipped to 7 feet and made the putt.
"Getting up and down was a good momentum saver and a good way to finish the round," Stricker said.
He was pleased to have a front-row seat for Watson's return.
"It was interesting to see how he was going to play," Stricker said. "I'm sure the last two weeks have been a whirlwind I'm sure he's tired, I'm sure his focus isn't quite there."
Els, playing in New Orleans for the first time since missing the cut in 2002, made the turn at 5 under, but lost a bit of momentum with a bogey on the par-3 17th. He rebounded with a birdie on his closing hole.
"It was a tough day. You had to be on your game," said Els, who has two top-five finishes in his past four starts. "Good start and just kept at it."