By Tim Cronin – A pair of mini-tour regulars shot 8-under-par 64 Monday to lead the 77th Arizona Open on Superstition Mountain Golf and Country Club’s Prospector Course in Golf Canyon, Arizona.

Blake Cannon, a 25-year-old from Mesa, used an eagle and six birdies to get to that mark. Neil Johnson, a 38-year-old from River Falls, Wis., piled up eight birdies on a 113-degree day, 44 degrees warmer than his hometown.

He and Cannon were hot regardless of the weather. The duo are a stroke ahead of professionals Jake Younan and Patrick Stolpe and amateur Scott Schlader, and two ahead of a sixsome including Jeremy Paul of Scottsdale.

Johnson went out in 3-under 33 but only birdied one of the par-5s.

“I felt great about the 33 and I’m not complaining, it’s just that I had momentum going on the back 9,” said Johnson. “Like maybe I can get lower…there’s more birdies out there, and I found them on the back 9.”

There were, as in a 5-under 31 for 64. He birdied Nos. 10, 12, 13 and 14 for starters.

“I got it rolling,” Johnson said. “Whether it’s momentum or the confidence that the swing feels good…I’m in it.”

He never saw the course until Sunday’s practice round, but liked the Jack Nicklaus-designed layout.

“I’d played Nicklaus holes like these before (as Desert Mountain), so I felt comfortable,” Johnson said.

While he’s lived in the Valley for more than a decade, this is his first Arizona Open since 2009 at Desert Mountain, where he opened with a 67 and tied for 14th. Since then, he’s played the role of mini-tour vagabond in the summer, with occasional status on various stepping-stone tours.

“This year, with everything that’s going on, it’s like, ‘Man, I don’t want to travel like I normally do. Let’s find closer events to home and not go all over the country.’ ”

Conveniently, one of the qualifiers was at Moon Valley, his home course, so a tidy 65 got him both a spot and medalist honors.

“I jokingly said that if I couldn’t qualify, maybe I pack it up the rest of the year, drive an Uber and deliver pizzas,” Johnson said.

There’s no chance of that now.

Cannon birdied the first three holes and, like Johnson, thought he could have been better.

“I let a couple go, could have been 6-under (after six),” Cannon said. “When you hit the wedges close, that’s kinda the whole game out here. And I hit the ball a long way. The eagle was fantastic. I actually pulled it off the tee a little bit, had 270 (yards) out of the rough, and hit a little chip-cut 4-wood to six feet. It was a ridiculously good shot.”

An Arizona Open rookie, Cannon had played Superstition Mountain many times as a family member, and the local knowledge paid off.

“I was very thankful to get an exemption and get a chance to compete,” Cannon said.

Younan, the 2018 champion, birdied half the holes en route to his 7-under 65. Only a pair of bogeys kept the native of Australia from the outright lead.

“I got some real easy numbers to where I could hit a full normal shot,” said Younan, who has played in the top 10 in 20 of his last 22 Southwest PGA Section starts. “When I have been playing, I’ve been playing great.”

Both Paul brothers were under par, with Jeremy’s 66 leading Yannik’s 70. Jeremy Paul, without the benefit of a practice round, needed an eagle to go with a quintet of birdies to reach 66 – thanks to the scouting report of his brother.

“I was just looking to hold it together and make a lot of pars,” Jeremy Paul said. “It turned out to be 6-under.”

His eagle came about with a 3-wood hammered 265 yard to 12 feet.

“That was a momentum shift,” he said. “I missed a few chances that I had.”

Defending champion Charlie Beljan, playing with a stiff neck, bogeyed his last two holes to settle for level par 72.

“Boy, if you get out to even a mediocre start, it makes the next two days a tough task,” Beljan said. “You could shoot 7-8-9 under without doing anything special out here. That’s what I have to do.”

Amateur Canon Olkowski, 19, from Las Vegas, Nev., captured the elusive albatross (double eagle) on the par-5 second hole.

Par took a beating, with 66 of the 156 players under par and another 15 at par 72. The field averaged 72.29 strokes. The par-5 seventh hole, playing at 579 yards, yielded an impressive five eagles and played as the easiest hole in the opening round averaging 4.64 strokes. The 192-yard, par-3 17th hole played as the most difficult averaging 3.36 strokes.

The second round will be held Tuesday, August 4, at 7:00 a.m. off Nos. 1 and 10. Following 36 holes of play, the field will be cut to the low 50 scorers plus ties for the final round on Wednesday, August 5.

Long-time Southwest PGA partner PING is the presenting sponsor of the 77th Arizona Open Championship. Their support helped raise this year’s purse to the highest level since 2008.