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Thursday’s golf: Hideki Matsuyama leads on long birdie to end tough day at BMW Championship

Doug Ferguson
Associated Press

Olympia Fields, Ill. — One of the toughest tests of the year made it clear that par would be a great score at Olympia Fields. Leave it to Hideki Matsuyama to make a 65-foot birdie putt on his final hole Thursday to lead the BMW Championship.

Matsuyama, the Japanese player who has gone three years since his last victory, birdied two of his last three holes for a 3-under 67, one of only three rounds under par on a course that was long, tough, firm, fast and nothing like the last two weeks.

Hideki Matsuyama lines up his putt on the 11th green during the first round of the BMW Championship.

Tyler Duncan, just outside the top 30 as he tries to earn his first trip to the Tour Championship, made an 8-foot par putt on his last hole for a 68. Mackenzie Hughes, one of only four players who reached 3 under at any point in his round, was another shot behind.

"I'm not sure really what I had going today, but that last putt, the long putt that went in, very happy with that one," Matsuyama said. "So we'll remember that one."

Dustin Johnson, who won The Northern Trust last week at 30-under par, opened with a 71 and felt like it was a good day's work. He was told that even three straight rounds of 60 would not be enough to reach 30 under at Olympia Fields.

"Yeah, but I would win," he said.

By a landslide, no doubt.

Tiger Woods needs to finish around fourth to have any hope of returning to East Lake next week in Atlanta to chase the $15 million bonus for the FedEx Cup winner. He was hovering around even par a few shots out of the lead. He finished with three straight bogeys for a 73 and was running hotter than the weather.

A three-time U.S. Open champion, Woods knows all about control and patience and key pars putts. And then he let a reasonable round get away from him.

"The course was fine. The course is in perfect shape. Not the way I wanted to finish," Woods said in brief comments.

The average score was 72.8, and only four of the 18 holes played under par. That included both par 5s. This is what the U.S. Open could have used in 2003, instead of rain-softened conditions. It was hot in the morning, baking out a dry course. The rough is 5 inches in spots. The greens were hard, making it tough to get the ball close and nearly impossible to get shots to stop on the green from out of the rough.

"I think when golf courses become like this and pars are a premium, I think I'm almost more comfortable at times because you don't feel like you'll ever get left behind when you're running off a few pars in a row," Hughes said. "Like last week, if you got off to a slow start and you were even par through six holes you felt like you were getting run over."

Rory McIlroy was among 10 players who finished at 70 and felt the day was a success. He hasn't registered a top 10 since golf returned from the coronavirus shutdown in June, and he conceded to being lethargic without fan energy.

"I said last week if you need someone to shoot between like even par and 2 under, I'm your man," McIlroy said. "So I'm loving these conditions. It's sort of weird. The way my game feels at the minute, it's just as easy for me to shoot even par here as it was last week in Boston, for whatever reason that is.

"But this is proper golf," he said. "You've really got to think about stuff. ... It's nice to play around of golf like that again."

Also in that group at even par was Carlos Ortiz of Mexico, notable because he was the latest player to be grouped with Woods for the first time. He raved about how Woods controls the flight of his irons. He missed out on the massive crowd because there are no spectators, only carts carrying the broadcast crew.

"It's probably the least amount of people he's played in front of," Ortiz said, "and the most for me."

Cameron Champ wears two different shoes Wednesday on the range at the BMW Championship.

Champ statement

Golf played on even as other sports in America stopped, and it gave Cameron Champ a chance to speak out at the BMW Championship.

First, with his shoes.

Then, with powerful words about a desire to find a solution to racial injustice.

Champ is one of four players of Black heritage on the PGA Tour, and one of only two – the other is Tiger Woods – who reached the second of three events in the FedEx Cup postseason. He arrived at Olympia Fields wearing a white shoe on the right foot and a black shoe on the left.

On the right shoe were the words “Jacob Blake” and “BLM” for the Blake Lives Matter movement, in the wake of Blake being shot seven times in the back by police in Kenosha, Wisconsin, about 90 miles to the north of Olympia Fields.

On his sneakers is “Papa Champ,” his grandfather who died late last year. His grandfather was Black, as his father, Jeff, who briefly played minor league baseball. His grandfather grew up in the South during the Jim Crow era.

“When people say all lives matter, yes, all lives matter, but so do Black lives,” Champ said. “It’s a situation where, again, as a country, as a whole we’ve kind of dug ourselves a hole. Now with media and people videotaping and seeing things, it’s starting to come alive. People are starting to talk about it, which is the good thing. Without dialogue, without talking about it, nothing is going to happen.

“It’s a decent start, but obviously there’s still a lot of stuff going on that quite frankly should not be happening at all,” he said. “It just has to end.”

UK Championship

Justin Waters took full advantage of his early start time to shoot an 8-under 64 Thursday in the first round of the rain-affected UK Championship, giving him a three-shot clubhouse lead.

Walters made six birdies and an eagle in a bogey-free round. His eagle on the 15th came just before heavy rain started coming down, and play had to be suspended for nearly four hours in the afternoon.

When play was stopped for the day because of darkness, 59 players had yet to complete their rounds.

Four players were tied for second, three shots behind Waters – including Benjamin Hebert of France and Bernd Wiesberger of Austria.

Two-time major winner Martin Kaymer was among eight players another shot back at the Belfry, which is hosting a European Tour event for the first time in 12 years.