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Thursday's golf: Fowler, Vegas, Merritt tied for 3M Open lead in Minnesota

Associated Press

Blaine, Minn. — Rickie Fowler’s improved driving helped him shoot a 5-under 65 on Sunday in the final round of the British Open.

Looking for a late push in the FedEx Cup standings, Fowler carried over the strong play Thursday with a 7-under 64 in the first round of the 3M Open.

Fowler set the opening-round pace with a bogey-free round later equaled by Jhonatton Vegas and Troy Merritt, who attended Spring Lake Park High School, about six miles south of the TPC Twin Cities.

Rickie Fowler watches his tee shot on the second hole during the first round of the 3M Open golf tournament in Blaine, Minn., Thursday, July 22, 2021.

Fowler, who has never missed the FedEx Cup playoffs in 11 seasons, started the tournament ranked 124th in the standings, with the top 125 making the playoffs. There are two weeks remaining after the 3M Open to qualify for the playoffs.

“I know where I’m at, what we need to do and stuff like that,” Fowler said. “Really just focusing on things we’ve been working on, playing more consistent good golf. More days like today and things will be fine. Kind of keep things, like I said, simple and small, focus on the day-to-day and this week, and go from there. Everything will work out.”

Vegas capped an eventful opening round in the dark when his approach on the par-5 18th landed on top of a hospitality tent. His ball was eventually found and he was given free relief. He birdied the hole to tie for the lead.

“You can barely see the flag,” Vegas said. “We had a number, which we messed up the number trying to play fast. I knew it was going to be long. ... It was a little bit of a nightmare right at the end.”

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Scott Stallings was trying to equal the course record of 62 before he double-bogeyed the 18th following more than a two-hour delay due to lightning in the area. Stallings was a stroke back at 65 with Adam Schenk and Roger Sloan. Sloan had two holes to play when play was suspended due to darkness with 11 players still on the course.

After his disappointing finish last weekend in the British Open, Louis Oosthuizen shot 68. Dustin Johnson, who withdrew with a back injury after an opening 78 in the 3M Open last year, opened with a 70.

Johnson was playing with Keith Sbarbaro, TaylorMade’s vice president of tour operations, as his caddie after Johnson’s brother, Austin, his usual caddie, tested positive for COVID-19.

Johnson said his brother has already been cleared for his next tournament, the FedEx St. Jude Invitational in Memphis, Tennessee, from Aug. 5-8.

“Keith’s worked for me quite a few times; Presidents Cup, U.S. Open, a few events here and there,” said Johnson, who tested positive for COVID-19 in November. “Yeah, we did just fine. Maybe hit the wrong club on a couple holes, but other than that, that was my fault though, I guess.”

Fowler, who’s looking for his first win since the 2019 Phoenix Open, didn’t have any mistakes. Starting on the back nine, the 32-year-old from California made three straight birdies on his turn from the 18th to the second hole.

He gained some confidence following his final round last weekend at Royal St. George’s. Fowler was one of 30 players to take a charter straight to Minnesota from the British Open.

“That was something that was kind of holding me back from making birdies, moving forward last week,” Fowler said about his driving. “So today, I mean, going off of what we did Sunday last week, just needed to tighten a few things up. This golf course is fairly generous off the tee. There’s a few lakes, ponds that you just need to avoid. Other than that, it’s go, attack for the most part.”

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Fowler and Merritt were in the morning wave that started in hazy and humid conditions and then had to wait through a delay of 2 hours, 24 minutes. Stallings was alone in the lead when play resumed, but his second shot on the 18th found the water, and his follow-up overshot the green.

“It stings now because it was five minutes ago,” Stallings said. “But at the end of the day I’m going to go out there. Put myself in great position after the first round and go out there and try and continue to do that the rest of the week.”

Merritt, who’s missed the cut in his last two starts, could be the sentimental favorite back in Minnesota. He finished with eight birdies, including his final two holes to equal Fowler.

“I’ve seen this golf course now for about 20 years,” Merritt said. “Came to watch the seniors play when I was in high school and got to play it once or twice. It’s just a lot of fun. It’s great for the players, it’s great for the fans, you can make a lot of birdies, the scoring’s usually really low. So, if you like shootouts, this is the golf course for you and you’re going to get another one this week.”

LPGA

Thailand’s Pajaree Anannarukarn and teenage American Yealimi Noh posted 6-under 65s to share the first-round lead at the Evian Championship on Thursday.

Noh's day began perfectly when she carded an eagle on the first hole. Her momentum was checked by a bogey on No. 4 but she birdied holes 6 and 7 and three more on the back nine.

“It is the first time I’ve started a tournament with an eagle. Both of my playing partners stuck it and I was like ‘I hope I stick it too, I don’t want to be left out,'" the 19-year-old Noh said. "I wanted to finish good and take the advantage of that early start.”

The consistent Pajaree had three birdies on the way out and three on the way back to the clubhouse.

“I made some really good putts that were not easy," she said. “I focused on the speed and what I have been working on, and it worked out pretty well.”

They hold a one-stroke lead over a group of five: Ayaka Furue of Japan, Lauren Stephenson of the U.S., 18-year-old Atthaya Thitikul of Thailand, Jeongeun Lee6 of South Korea, and Emily Kristine Pedersen of Denmark.

Pedersen had two eagles on the par-5 ninth and 18th holes.

“It’s a good start to the tournament, I holed a lot of good putts and a chip today," Pedersen said. "I have been struggling with my putting, so it’s really positive to see that I’ve found something good going forward.”

Australian Sarah Kemp, South Korean Hyo Joo Kim — the Women’s World Championship winner in May — and Thailand's Ariya Jutanugarn shot 67s.

Meanwhile, new world No. 1 Nelly Korda endured a rough start to her bid for a second major title when she posted a 3-over 74.

The American, who won the Women’s PGA Championship last month to move to No. 1, had five bogeys and made only her second birdie on the 17th hole.

Meanwhile, defending champion Jin Young Ko fared little better, shooting a 1-over 72. Ko had five bogeys against birdies on holes 6, 7, 9 and 18.

Korda is a six-time LPGA Tour winner and the first American at No. 1 in the women’s world ranking since 2014.

Her older sister, Jessica, finished one shot ahead on 73 at the picturesque Evian Resort on the shore of Lake Geneva in the French Alps.

Ko won at Evian in 2019 but the event was canceled last year amid the coronavirus pandemic.

“I have seen my picture everywhere, so I was thinking, ‘Wow, that was just two years ago but feels like it was five years ago,'" Ko said.

She teed off shortly after 8 a.m. along with former champions Anna Nordqvist (2017) and Angela Stanford (2018).

Stanford had a 1-under 70 and Nordqvist held par.

Seven-time major winner Inbee Park also made par.

The third-ranked Park is chasing the only major she has not won. She won Evian in 2012, but that was the year before it became a major, and Park has not placed higher than eighth ever since.

European Tour

Swedish newcomer Vincent Norrman continued his remarkable start to life as a professional golfer as he took a share of the lead after the first round of the Wales Open on Thursday.

Norrman turned professional only in June but has already had a hole-in-one and a top five in the paid ranks and he was bogey free as he carded a 64 to get to 7 under at Celtic Manor.

That left him alongside Spaniard Nacho Elvira at the top of the leaderboard at the 2010 Ryder Cup venue, with England’s James Morrison leading the British challenge two shots back.

Ryder Cup hopeful Matt Wallace was in the group at 4 under alongside three more Englishmen in Sam Horsfield, Robert Rock and Jordan Wrisdale.

Elvira recorded two bogeys and a double but countered them with nine birdies and an eagle.

Morrison dropped a single shot in his 66 to sit alongside Finn Mikko Korhonen at 5 under.

PGA Tour Champions

Darren Clarke shot a 5-under 65 on Thursday at Sunningdale for a share of the Senior British Open lead with James Kingston.

Clarke had six birdies and a bogey on the Old Course in the final senior major championship of the year. The 52-year-old from Northern Ireland won the British Open in 2011 at Royal St. George’s.

“I played smart around here,” Clarke said. "I hit away from the flags to the middle of the greens and gave myself some chances, and kept giving myself chances there in the last few holes. Didn’t make anything at the end, but just played smart. I think the winner is going to have to play smart this week.”

Kingston, from South Africa, had a bogey-free round. He was recently hospitalized because of COVID-19.

“I feel like I’ve been a little unprepared,” Kingston said. “I was down with COVID and in hospital or whatever, so I don’t think my preparation coming into this week is exactly what I would have liked. But when you get to a place like this and you like the golf course, it seems to just sneak into your game, and I love what I see out there.”

Defending champion Bernhard Langer was a stroke back with Ricardo Gonzalez and Stephen Dodd. The 63-year-old Langer won in 2019 at Royal Lytham & St. Annes for his fourth victory in the event. The 2020 tournament was canceled.

Ernie Els was at 67 with Jerry Kelly, Jose Coceres, Wes Short Jr., Robert Allenby, Peter Fowler and Phillip Price.

Jim Furyk, the U.S, Senior Open winner two weeks ago in Omaha, Nebraska, closed with a double bogey for a 70.