Thursday's golf: Kodaira, Hickok each shoot 63 to share Travelers lead

Associated Press

Cromwell, Conn. — Satoshi Kodaira and Kramer Hickok each shot a PGA Tour career-best 7-under 63 to share the first-round lead Thursday in the Travelers Championship.

Talor Gooch was a stroke behind Hickok after the morning rounds. Kodaira took the lead at 8 under in the afternoon after making the turn onto the front nine birdie-eagle-birdie, but a bogey on the par-3 eighth dropped him back into a tie with Hickok.

Satoshi Kodaira lines up his shot on the seventh green during the first round of the Travelers Championship golf tournament at TPC River Highlands, Thursday, June 24, 2021, in Cromwell, Conn.

Defending champion Dustin Johnson, who held the world No. 1 ranking until Jon Rahm passed him Sunday with his U.S. Open victory, stumbled at the start with a bogey on the second hole and then a double on No. 3. He finished with a pair of birdies to end the day at 70 at TPC River Highlands.

Two-time Travelers champion Phil Mickelson sank a 64-foot putt for birdie on the par-4 ninth hole — his second-longest putt since the tour began tracking such things in 2004. The 2001 and '02 winner then made a 40-footer for par on No. 10.

“That long birdie putt, it’s just a bonus. You’re just trying to lag it up there close and it just felt in,” Mickelson said. “Same thing on 10, after making a mistake and having that long par putt. To make it was a nice little boost. Unfortunately, I didn’t advantage of that on the back nine.”

Micklelson was 1 over on the back in a 69.

“I let a good opportunity go after playing the front nine a couple under,” he said. “I was very close to hitting a lot of really good shots but they were just fractionally off.”

Kodaira's 63 matched his best score on the PGA Tour, from the second round of the 2018 RBC Heritage — his only victory. He was helped when he holed out from the fairway for an eagle on the 348-yard, par-4 second hole.

“I knew it was on target but didn’t see it go in,” he said. “I heard the applause, so I knew it went in.”

Hickok's top finish is a tie for eighth at the Bermuda Championship this year. He opened with a bogey on the par-4 10th hole, then rattled off eight birdies without dropping another stroke the rest of the way.

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He missed a 5-foot birdie putt on the 13th hole, but then birdied five of the next seven holes and he played the last four of the day in three under.

“I really only hit one bad putt — on the par-5 13th. Other than that, I just felt like the holes looked awfully big today,” he said. “I made a lot of good putts today, and the greens says are rolling so good that just the holes look big.”

Hickok said he had his worst warmup session of the year in the morning, spraying the ball all over the range.

“So I really changed my strategy,” he said. “You just take a lot weight off your shoulders and you just go and simplify things ... just saying, ‘I don’t have that shot today. I’m not going to try and hit it.’ Just go with what you got.”

LPGA

Lizette Salas was in her happy place Thursday, and not just because she kept bogeys off her card at tough Atlanta Athletic Club and posted a 5-under 67 for the early lead in the KPMG Women's PGA Championship.

Her game is rounding into form as the Solheim Cup approaches. That's a big deal to her, too.

But the broad smile went well beyond golf.

The COVID-19 pandemic took its toll on the 31-year-old Californian, dulling her usual spark and creating anxiety that she initially mistook for nerves.

“I really didn't like myself in 2020, and I think with the whole COVID and not being able to work and have golf as my outlet, that really hit hard,” Salas said.

She had never talked about it publicly until Thursday, confident that the worst is behind her. She never spoke about it to her parents or coaches or support team. A Mexican-American with a hardscrabble road to the LPGA Tour, she attributes her stubbornness to talk about such matters to her Hispanic background.

“It was hard for me to even speak about it just because I felt like other people are going through the same thing. Why do I need to feel sorry for myself?” she said. “Over time, it accumulated and got worse, and when I finally got out here, it was just ... so bad that the golf couldn’t help.”

One round wasn't going to solve everything, and Salas saw enough of the Atlanta Athletic Club to realize it won't be smooth sailing all week.

Salas had one of five rounds in the 60s from the early wave, with four players at 69. Nelly Korda, who last week became the first two-time winner on this LPGA Tour season of parity, was among those at 70 after making a long birdie putt on the 18th.

Inbee Park, the seven-time major champion and Olympic gold medalist, played better than her score of 71, all because of one hole.

She had mud on her ball from rain earlier in the week, and it hooked some 50 yards left on the par-4 eighth hole, down an embankment and into the water. After a drop in deep rough to a short-sided pin, she conservatively went long to keep it rolling back down the hill, and she three-putted for triple bogey from some 70 feet.

Park atoned for that with a 75-foot birdie putt on the 18th for a 71.

“I played really, really good out there today, except for one mud ball,” Park said. “I got probably like five, six mud balls out there, but that one mud ball really, really cost me, probably too much. I played probably almost flawless except for getting a mud ball. I think there's nothing that I really can complain about today."

U.S. Women's Open champion Yuka Saso and Lexi Thompson, whose back-nine collapse at Olympic Club three weeks ago cost her the Women's Open, played with Park. Each shot 73.

Salas had no such issues. She finished with a tough par putt, had no complaints with any part of her game and make a nervy par putt at the end to keep a clean card.

Salas spoke on days getting darker before it got light, and turning point was a month ago at the Pure Silk Championship at Kingsmill, site of her lone LPGA Tour victory in 2014. Her caddie from that win, John Killeen, is back on the bag. There were positive memories, good vibes.

“That just lit a spark in me,” Salas said.

She ended 18 straight tournaments of pedestrian play with a tie for fifth, added another top 10 last week in Michigan and is trending.

“I had to take care of my mental health, and that’s something that a lot of people don’t really take into consideration,” she said. "I think for me coming from a Hispanic background, it’s very hard to talk about that, but I’m very fortunate to have a team that was willing to bend over backwards to help me and to get me to where I am right now.

“I just understand myself more, and I’m at a point where I like myself again, even when days aren’t as good as others. It’s been a quite a roller coaster of emotions,” she added. “Here I am, and I'm playing much better. Just happy to be here.”

Salas spent her time during the pandemic staying off her phone and reading more books, which helped her to slow down life, decompress and get more sleep.

One of them was titled, “I'm Not Your Perfect Mexican Daughter,” which she felt like an autobiography. She also read a book about Mexican painter Frida Kalo.

“And when you look back at her history, she did things her way and enjoyed her own process,” Salas said. “So I’ve just been highlighting a few things here and there. It really ... it puts me to sleep. It’s a win-win.”

And then she burst into a big smile, a sight that had been missing for too long.

PGA Tour Champions

Steve Stricker decided at the last minute to play the Senior Players Championship instead of the PGA Tour, and he made it pay off Thursday at Firestone.

Stricker holed a bunker shot on the par-3 12th for a birdie, ran off three straight birdies at the end of his opening nine holes and kept bogeys off his card for a 7-under 63. That gave him a four-shot lead over Ken Duke and Paul Broadhurst.

It was just the start he needed after his last two events on the PGA Tour Champions. The Ryder Cup captain lost a great chance to win the Senior PGA Championship at Southern Hills with a 77 in the final round, and he got off to such a poor start in his American Family Insurance Championship that a closing 65 was only good for a tie for seventh.

On the PGA Tour or against guys his own age, putting — the hallmark of his career — has held him back and Stricker found himself tinkering at home in Wisconsin.

“I haven’t been putting like I’m accustomed to putting, so I’ve been really grinding on that a lot at home, changing grips and putters all over the place,” he said. “I got a new grip on the putter this week, but we’ll see. I’m working at it. It hasn’t been great, but today was good.”

Duke chipped in from behind the 18th green to close out his round of 67.

The group at 69 included defending champion Jerry Kelly, who is coming off his second straight victory in Wisconsin.

The putter grip Stricker used Thursday was the same one he had when he won the Chubb Classic earlier this year in Florida. And then he went to something else, typical of most players, although in this case he said his putting was still not great that week.

“I gave it another chance,” he said. “My are tighter.”

Stricker for years used the same putter during his best run on the PGA Tour. Now he’s tinkering, even experimenting with the arm-lock method used by the likes of Bryson DeChambeau and Matt Kuchar.

He’s not ready for that just yet.

“I’m a left dominant-sided putter, left arm putter, so even the arm lock feels good to me, but that’s another level,” he said. “So I’ve been going the other way and putting this grip on and that feels pretty good.”

Starting on the back nine in windy conditions, Stricker hit 6-iron to 4 feet on the 11th hole, followed with his bunker shot on the 12th and then hit a lob wedge to 4 feet on the par-5 16th, holed a 20-foot birdie on the 17th and knocked it in from 10 feet behind the hole at No. 18.

Only seven players broke par on the South Course, that previously hosted a World Golf Championship.

European Tour

The threat of lightning caused the first round of the BMW International Open to be suspended on Thursday with Wade Ormsby the clubhouse leader.

Ormsby, Sam Horsfield, Masahiro Kawamura and Sebastian Garcia Rodriguez were all on 7 under par when the round was suspended. Of those four, only Ormsby had completed his round.

The round will be restarted early Friday morning.

“I've been swinging pretty good the last week and a half,” Ormsby said. “The putter hasn't been cooperating, but it did today, so that's how you shoot those numbers.”

U.S. Open runner-up Louis Oosthuizen completed his round on 2 under after six birdies and four bogeys.