Just out of college, Davis Thompson schools the field to take early lead at Rocket

Tony Paul
The Detroit News

Detroit — On a supremely soggy day at Detroit Golf Club, which has been pummeled by heavy rains nearly every day since last weekend, it was a wet-behind-the-ears pro who poured in putt after putt, birdie after birdie, to take the lead on Day 1 of the PGA Tour's third annual Rocket Mortgage Classic.

Davis Thompson, fresh off a decorated collegiate career at Georgia and playing in this event on a sponsor's exemption, fired a 9-under 63, sandwiched around a three-plus-hour rain delay, for a two-stroke advantage on Joaquin Niemann, Brandon Hagy and Tom Lewis on Thursday.

Two more were three shots back, and a whole host of golfers were four back at 5 under, including former No. 1-ranked player in the world Jason Day, as well as last year's runner-up and third-place finishers here, Matthew Wolff and Kevin Kisner, respectively, before play was suspended by darkness at 9 p.m.

Davis Thompson acknowledges the crowd after finishing his round on the ninth green during the first round Thursday of the Rocket Mortgage Classic at the Detroit Golf Club in Detroit.

The 63 tied the lowest round shot in competition for Thompson, who in March was the No. 1-ranked amateur golfer in the world. Now, he's a PGA Tour leader. How does that sound?

"Sounds good on Sunday," Thompson said with a grin. "It's only Thursday. I know I've got a long way to go.

"I'm just going to try to do the same thing tomorrow."


The 63 also matches the low round in the short Rocket Mortgage Classic history, with 2019 champion Nate Lashley (who did it twice) and J.T. Poston, who also shot his in 2019.

Thompson started strong, with two birdies on the first two holes, including a 4 iron to 21 inches at the 233-yard, par-3 11th hole, and shot an opening-nine 31.

He finished nearly as strong as he started, with birdies on two of his last three holes, wrapping up his round after a lengthy rain delay. Heavy rains came shortly after noon, and play didn't resume until 3:30 p.m. Twenty-seven players didn't complete their first round, including Flint's Willie Mack III, who was 3 under through 15 holes when play was called — the best score among the four Michigan men in the field.

Thompson, 22, did his best to stretch and stay loose, and most importantly maintain focus, during the delay.

"I mean, especially today," said Thompson, only playing his seventh PGA Tour tournament, and just his third as a professional. "I looked at my phone and some friends were texting me. I just tried to block all that out and focus on finishing strong, and I was able to do that today, which was huge."

Said Traverse City's Ryan Brehm, a Michigan State alum who shot a 1-under 71 playing in Thompson's group: "It was a bunch of strikes and gutters out there today. ... I was just watching Davis pour them all in."

Thompson made his pro debut at the Palmetto Championship in mid-June, finishing tied for 35th, and then played the Travelers last week, when he missed the cut.

After emailing several tournament directors as his collegiate career was coming to a close, Thompson found out he would receive one of the four Rocket Mortgage Classic sponsor's exemptions in late May.

And on Thursday, he was a steady force — that's a strength of his; he hit all but one green in regulation, and could've gone even lower, had he not parred two of the par 5s — on a day of drama on the grounds of the historic golf club. Phil Mickelson, the biggest draw in golf with Tiger Woods sidelined by injury, made three birdies in a row on his back nine to shoot a 3-under 69, then confirmed his tweets during the rain delay that he wouldn't return to play in Detroit because he was upset over the timing of a Detroit News report about being cheated out of half-million dollars by a Metro Detroit bookie two decades ago.

"I don't see me coming back," Mickelson said. "Not that I don't love the people here."

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Earlier in the day, news broke that Bryson DeChambeau, defending Rocket Mortgage Classic champion, had split up with caddie Tim Tucker, who'd been on the bag for each of DeChambeau's eight PGA Tour victories, including the 2020 U.S. Open. Tucker was hastily replaced by a Cobra equipment rep, who'd never before caddied on the PGA Tour.

DeChambeau appeared out of sorts early in his first round, with three bogeys to go with three birdies on his first nine. He finished even par, and will have to go really low Friday just to make the cut.

Scoring conditions were perfect for the morning wave Thursday. While the rain made the course longer — most drives early got absolutely no roll — it also softened the greens, making for some easy targets. Players were allowed to lift, clean and place in the fairway, and many got free drops out of casual water in the rough.

Conditions were slightly tougher for the afternoon groups, as brisk winds replaced the rain.

For Hagy, the first-round 65 comes after missing three of his last four cuts, and 12 of 22 on the season, sandwiched around a big runner-up showing at the Honda Classic. Hagy saved a tough par from a long bunker shot at No. 1, rolled in a 20-footer for birdie at No. 2 and was off and running.

"I know that I can handle that situation, I've been there before," Hagy said of securing the early lead. "Honda was kind of the tournament ... that gave me a lot of confidence this year. Being able to shoot good rounds, being able to have a bounce-back round, being able to finish near the top of the leaderboard.

"Those are definitely things that you draw on."

Lewis, of the United Kingdom, shot a bogey-free 65 to match Hagy and Niemann, of Chile, who shot the best round of the afternoon starts. They were a shot better than Ireland's Seamus Power, who bested his opening round from last year by two shots. Power was in contention entering last year's final round, until shooting a Sunday 72. Lewis and Power tied for 12th at last year's Rocket.

Power was tied with J.J. Spaun at 66.

Wolff led a large contingent at 5 under; he was at 6 under until making bogey at his last hole. Wolff, who held the 54-hold lead before finishing three shots back of DeChambeau in 2020, made eagle at the par-5 17th, hitting his approach from 266 yards to just inside 19 feet. He nearly made a second eagle on his second nine, at No. 7, but his 9-foot, left-to-right putt just missed on the low side.

Throughout his round, Wolff, who recently returned from a two-month break to deal with his mental well-being amid the pressures of the game, was met with howls from fans, who are back in 2021 after the 2020 tournament was played without them because of COVID-19.

Thompson, in comparison to Wolff, is a relative unknown — the SEC player of the year is pretty much where Wolff was two years ago, when he won the 3M Open fresh out of college and also on a sponsor's exemption— but that might be about to change this week.

Eleven men have won on the PGA Tour on sponsor's exemptions, the last being Martin Laird earlier this season, and the first being Mickelson, as an amateur in 1991.

"Just be present, go through my routines, don't get too high or too low," said Thompson, who enjoys superhero movies when he's not playing golf (Christian Bale is the best "Batman," he says). 

"You've got to keep your emotions in check. Anything can happen."

Other notables included former Masters champions Bubba Watson and Danny Willett and Garrick Higgo at 4 under, fellow Masters winner Patrick Reed and Webb Simpson at 3 under, and this year's Masters champ Hideki Matsuyama and Rickie Fowler at 2 under. 

Watson rallied after he was 2 over through seven holes. Matsuyama stumbled, with a double-bogey late.


Twitter: @tonypaul1984