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Thursday's golf: Simpson, Fitzpatrick lead WGC; Johnson, DeChambeau struggle

Associated Press

Bradenton, Fla. — Webb Simpson ran off three straight late birdies for a share of the lead Thursday in the Workday Championship. Dustin Johnson and Bryson DeChambeau ran up some big numbers.

Simpson matched Matthew Fitzpatrick with a 6-under 66 at The Concession in the World Golf Championships event moved from Mexico City to Florida because of COVID-19 circumstances.

Bryson DeChambeau tees off from the first tee during the first round Thursday of the Workday Championship Thursday in Bradenton, Fla.

Simpson’s finishing stretch included a wedge to 2 feet, a 30-foot birdie putt on the 16th hole and a two-putt birdie from about 40 feet on the par-5 17th. 

Fitzpatrick, who contended last week at Riviera, played bogey-free on the Jack Nicklaus design that had never been used for a PGA Tour event.

“Very pleased with the start,” Simpson said. “I worked on a couple things last week with putting alignment and with my driver and I saw good things from that today. You always want to see it first round back, but it doesn’t always happen that way, so I was happy to see like tough tee shots with trouble, really stepping up and making good swings. 

“And made a lot of putts today,” he added, “so that was a good feeling.”

Johnson had his first Sunday round over par in a year when he shot 72 last week while in contention. The start at this World Golf Championship was even worse. 

The world’s No. 1 player drove left into the trees on the 18th hole as he was making the turn, had to pitch out sideways, came up short and then failed to get up-and-down to take double bogey. He made another double bogey on No. 5 with a tee shot into the water.

Johnson wasn’t alone in his struggles. DeChambeau also shot a 77, with his big trouble coming on the 16th. After a tee shot into the water, he went right of the fairway, came up short of the green and took three shots to get down for a triple bogey.

Bubba Watson had a 77, while Matthew Wolff shot an 83 and withdrew.

Brooks Koepka was a stroke out of the lead at 67 with Billy Horschel, Sergio Garcia and Kevin Kisner, who is playing for the first time since the Sony Open because his wife had their third child.

“If you’re on, you’re going to have chances. You’re going to be really good with the tee ball or you’re going to have chances with your iron play,” Horschel said. “If you’re off with your ball-striking and you miss in some tough spots, you can look pretty silly.”

Second-ranked Jon Rahm bogeyed the final hole late in the afternoon for a 68.

Tony Finau, coming off a playoff loss to Max Homa last week at Riviera, also was at 68 with defending champion Patrick Reed, Wade Ormsby, Sungjae Im and Cameron Smith.

Rory McIlroy had three bogeys in a 69.

“I think with any new course it’s just a matter of getting comfortable with visuals and lines off tees, and then I think we’re all sort of learning the golf course a little bit as we go along,” McIlroy said. “Most tour events we go to, we basically know where the four pin positions are going to be and we can practice to those. 

“I think tee-to-green it’s pretty simple,” he said. “But then around the greens, I think it’s one of these places, the more you play it, the more you’ll just feel comfortable with it.”

Third-ranked Justin Thomas one-putted his last four holes — three birdies and one par — to salvage a 73 after he had dropped four shots in a three-hole stretch on his first nine. The par was a 10-footer on the par-5 seventh after it took him two shots to get out of a fairway bunker.

Homa, coming off the hometown win in Los Angeles, also had a 73.

Patrick Cantlay, who leads the FedEx Cup, withdrew before the start of the round with stomach and dehydration issues.

Sorenstam returns

Annika Sorenstam doesn’t remember golf being this difficult.

She still managed plenty of smiles when the most dominant player of her era played her first LPGA Tour event in more than 12 years. With one birdie and one bad hole, Sorenstam had a 3-over 75 in the LPGA Gainbridge on her home course at Lake Nona.

“It seems a little bit more stressful, this kind of golf,” she said.

Sorenstam was 10 shots behind another Lake Nona member, Lydia Ko, who opened with a 7-under 65 for a two-shot lead.

But then, this week isn’t about Sorenstam adding to her 72 career victories or even starting a comeback at age 50. The LPGA Tour came to her home course and she wanted to play.

With that early heard turn and tee shots that more often than not found the fairway, it didn’t seem like Sorenstam had been away from the LPGA Tour since Nov. 23, 2008, when she retired after a three-win season to start a family.

It was the rest of the game that felt so foreign.

“I could have been more aggressive on the putts, I could have been more aggressive on iron shots,” she said. “I’m at a point in my life that it’s not automatic. It’s not a pin-seeker the way it was. Now it’s more a green-seeker. I did OK. A little more stressful golf, but overall, it’s fun.”

Lake Nona members and a few family guests were allowed, and Sorenstam found about 150 people gathered around the first tee. That constitutes a sizeable crowd in the COVID-19 pandemic era.

“I was quite nervous. I’ve been nervous for a few days,” said Sorenstam, adding that she practiced meditation that morning to help calm her down.

The highlight was a gap wedge from about 95 yards on the 14th hole that landed some 10 feet behind the hole and spun back to a foot away for a tap-in birdie.

Sorenstam had said she could play 14 holes fine but there were a few surprises on the other four. She only had one surprise Thursday, but it was a big one.

After opening with four pars, she pulled her tee shot on the fifth hole so far left that it settled directly under the gate of a wrought-iron fence. The rules officials determined it was in play “by a dimple.” Sorenstam asked if she could open the gate to play the shot, but that wasn’t allowed.

And then she almost made other mistake. She was reminded the drop was knee-length, not shoulder-length. The Rules of Golf have been updated three times since she last played, the major overhaul coming two years ago.

“I have not studied the rules in 13 years. Rules are not part of my life right now,” she said with a laugh.

After a penalty drop, she hit it back toward the fairway to about 70 yards, hit an ordinary wedge and three-putted from about 18 feet for a triple bogey.

“I can’t remember the last time I made triple bogey,” she said.

Sorenstam also three-putted on No. 10, and she failed to birdie any of the par 5s. The rust was evident. In her prime, Sorenstam’s caddie would stand in the middle of the driving range with a baseball game to catch her full swings with a wedge or a 9-iron, and he rarely had to move.

In competition, with a scorecard in hand, Sorenstam was tentative and rarely gave herself good looks at birdie. That was to be expected, and that will have to improve if she wants to play the weekend.

“I don’t hit it as long,” she said, and that was evident by the few times Madelene Sagstrom hit it some 60 yards past her off the tee. “I’ve always had another gear. I don’t even know if I have a single gear now.”