Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia — Justin Thomas collected the Jack Nicklaus Award as the U.S. PGA Tour player of the year a couple of days before heading to Malaysia in a bid to win his third successive CIMB Classic.
Little wonder then that Thomas, the two-time defending champion, was slightly off his game in the first round on Thursday, managing only a 2-under-par 70 to sit six strokes behind leader Cameron Smith of Australia.
Smith opened with a blemish-free 8-under 64 and leads a U.S. PGA Tour event after the first round for the first time in 64 starts.
Keegan Bradley, Xander Schauffele and Poom Saksansin of Thailand were tied for second at 7 under.
Brendan Steele, coming off a victory last week at the Safeway Open, had an opening 67 to be three shots off the lead.
Thomas has barely had time to catch his breath after winning the FedEx Cup and playing in the Presidents Cup.
He won his first Tour title here two years ago. He successfully defended it last year, and has had a transformative 2017 in which he’s won five titles and his first major, the U.S. Open.
He’s aiming to be the first player to win the same tournament three years in a row since Steve Stricker at the John Deer Classic from 2009-11.
Schauffele, the U.S. Tour rookie of the year, said he was taking plenty of notice of how Thomas approaches this course and is trying to keep it simple.
“The rough has been up apparently compared to last year, that’s what Justin told me,” he said. “I pretty much tried to copy everything that he did because I figured he’s a good guy to imitate out here.”
Thomas mixed five birdies with three bogeys. Schauffele and Poom made seven birdies to go into early contention, while Bradley eagled the 12th hole to make amends for his sole bogey.
Smith, an Australian, posted a blemish-free round of eight birdies, including five on the front nine for a 64.
“The putting was easy actually,” Smith said.
He’s chasing his second title of the year after winning the Zurich Classic in April.
The American trio of Kevin Na, Gary Woodland, and Pat Perez were also in contention in the Asian Tour event after carding 66s. Hideki Matsuyama, the 2016 runner-up, faltered with two bogeys to sit with Thomas in a tie for 23rd place.
Defending champion and home favorite Francesco Molinari was among six players who shared a one-stroke lead after the opening round of the Italian Open in Monza, Italy.
Jamie Donaldson, Kiradech Aphibarnrat, Eddie Pepperell, Matt Wallace and Alexander Bjork also shot 7-under 64s Thursday at the Golf Club Milano, next to Monza’s Formula One circuit.
George Coetzee and An Byeong-hun were both one stroke back in the Rolex Series event, which has an increased purse of $7 million this year as part of the buildup to the 2022 Ryder Cup outside Rome.
Masters champion Sergio Garcia stood in a group two strokes behind the leaders, while playing partner and fellow Spaniard Jon Rahm was among those three shots behind.
Tommy Fleetwood, who leads the Race to Dubai ahead of Garcia and Rahm, had some ground to make up after a par 71.
Molinari chipped in for birdie at No. 18, his ninth hole of the day, and finished with nine birdies and two bogeys.
“I started pretty much where I left off last year,” Molinari said.
With no ticket fees, Molinari had a lot of fan support.
“It’s great to see the crowds,” he said. “I think there’s a nice buzz around the place and I’m happy and proud to be part of it.”
Thailand’s Aphibarnrat made four birdies in his first eight holes before saving par at the 18th.
Sung Hyun Park birdied her last two holes for a 6-under 66 and a share of the lead in the LPGA KEB Hana Bank Championship in Incheon, South Korea as the South Korean bolstered her bid to win LPGA rookie of the year and player of the year.
Park was tied for the first-round lead with Min-Sun Kim and Minjee Lee.
Cristie Kerr, coming off a victory last week in France, was among those at 67.
Park, who won the U.S. Women’s Open this year for her first major and is No. 2 in the world, was playing Thursday in the featured group at Sky 72 Golf & Resort comprising the top three players in the world ranking. The top-ranked So Yeon Ryu opened with a 72, while Lexi Thompson had a 69.
“I am off to a really good start,” Park said. “I’m feeling really good. My only hope at this point is that I maintain this. My putting was really strong today, especially I was holing a lot of my mid-range putts.”