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American Bertsch surges two ahead at Hope Classic

LOS ANGELES (Reuters) - Shane Bertsch, who has bounced between the PGA Tour and its satellite circuit over the last 15 years, charged into a two-shot lead in the Bob Hope Classic first round at La Quinta, California on Wednesday.

Making the most of receptive greens on a surprisingly cool day in the desert, American Bertsch fired a sizzling 10-under-par 62 on the Nicklaus Private course at PGA West, one of four venues hosting the five-round pro-am celebrity event.

Rookie Alex Prugh, making only his third appearance on the PGA Tour, and fellow American Jeff Quinney recorded matching 64s on the same Nicklaus layout.

Tour veteran JP Hayes launched his season in fine style with an eight-birdie 65 on the Palmer Private course, finishing level with fellow Americans Garrett Willis, George McNeill and Joe Ogilvie.

Willis started out on the Nicklaus layout, McNeill began at La Quinta Country Club and Ogilvie toured the Palmer course.

"It was just one of those rounds where everything kind of flowed together," Bertsch, 39, told reporters after compiling successive loops of five-under 31 in a flawless display.

"I hadn't played the course since the late '90s. I didn't know really what to expect. I didn't do anything over the top great. My game was pretty solid all the way around."

Bertsch, a highly promising tennis player as a junior, has had just five seasons on the PGA Tour since qualifying for the first time at the end of 1995.

LONG WAY

Fresh from his third visit to the Tour's qualifying school last month, he knows there is a still a long way to go before he can even contemplate a breakthrough victory.

"I got a feel for it (the lead) but there are four more rounds and there's going to be (wet) weather and three different courses," he said. "I'm just going to go out and play."

Prugh, who qualified for the PGA Tour by finishing 16th in the Nationwide Tour money list last year, felt he had benefited hugely from the experience gained on the U.S. feeder circuit.

"I'm going to give credit to the Nationwide Tour," the 25-year-old American said after recording four birdies in his last five holes as the wind strengthened.

"We don't have as big a fan base and whatnot, but the level of competition, I think, is just as good (as the PGA Tour)."

The California coast is being battered by high winds and heavy rain this week and wet weather has been forecast for the next two rounds of the 90-hole event.

Players were permitted to lift, clean and place balls in the fairway for the opening round.

"It was moist, it wasn't wet," double PGA Tour winner Hayes said of Wednesday's conditions. "It's probably more in anticipation of what might come than what was (there) today."

Canadian left-hander Mike Weir, the 2003 champion, opened with a 67 on the Palmer course while former world number one David Duval returned a 74 at the same venue.

(Writing by Mark Lamport-Stokes; Editing by Nick Mulvenney)