Thursday's golf: Thomas, Rahm open with 63s to share lead at Liberty National
Jersey City, N.J. — Jon Rahm returned from a month off and played like he was never gone. Justin Thomas took the advice of a 15-year-old and had his lowest score of the year.
Both opened with an 8-under 63 on Thursday at The Northern Trust as the PGA Tour's postseason began with no shortage of bizarre developments.
Rahm, who missed his chance at the Olympics because of what amounts to a false positive test result for COVID-19, expected a little rust in his game. It just didn't show on his card. He chipped in for birdie, saved par on the next two holes and was on his way.
Thomas had benched his putter for bad behavior after he spent too much of the year not seeing putts go in the hole. But during his junior event last week, a teenager asked why he wasn't using his old putter.
“And I found myself defending myself to this 15-year-old,” he said. “I was like, ‘Why am I not using this thing?' It's not like I’m making a lot of putts with what I have. If you’re putting well, any of us can go out and putt with anything.”
He didn't hole all of them, but enough to record nine birdies for his lowest round since a 62 last November in Mexico.
Bryson DeChambeau also made nine birdies. He was eight shots behind. His round of 71 was noteworthy because of the pars he made on No. 4 and No. 10. Those were the only pars he made all day. The nine birdies were offset by five bogeys and two double bogeys.
It was the first time in 10 years someone shot par or better with two pars or fewer.
Not to be overlooked was Dustin Johnson, one of the most stress-free players in golf — at least he looks that way — who uttered words rarely heard: “Threw me for a loop.”
He was hitting drivers on the range, and hitting them well, right before teeing off when a few of them came off the club funny and another one sounded funny. His driver cracked, and Johnson headed to the first tee with 13 clubs and one head cover for his 5-wood.
He had a spare 3-wood in the car — but no driver — and got that on the third hole. If that wasn't enough, he decided on a putter switch at the last minute. He still managed a 70.
Otherwise, there was a range of good golf in surprisingly strong wind off the Hudson River across from the Manhattan skyline.
Harold Varner III had a 66 in the morning, boosting his postseason chances. He is No. 72 in the FedEx Cup standings, and only the top 70 after this week advance to the next tournament. With the points at quadruple value, some big movements are expected.
The six players at 67 included Adam Scott (No. 82), Robert Streb (No. 68) and Mackenzie Hughes (No. 67).
British Open champion Collin Morikawa, the No. 1 seed, struggled to keep the ball in play and opened with a 74. Jordan Spieth at No. 2 opened with a 72.
Rahm has endured the strangest of times with COVID-19. He tested positive on the day he built a six-shot lead through 54 holes at the Memorial and had to withdraw, and then returned to win the U.S. Open for his first major.
And then after more negative test results than he can remember for the British Open — he tied for third at Royal St. George's — he had two more negative tests prior to his departure for the Olympics before a positive result showed up. The next day, he took two more tests (both negative), but by then it was too late.
He returned from his bout with COVID-19 by winning a major. This is different. He never had a chance to win a gold medal because he never made it to Tokyo. But he wouldn't mind the same result, which in this case would be a FedEx Cup title worth $15 million.
“I sure don't want to have to rely on being pulled out of tournaments to be able to win one, let's just say that,” he said.
Thomas knows putts that don't fall is not the fault of the equipment, but something had to change, so he benched his putter at he U.S. Open. Ultimately, it's about getting the speed to match with the line of the putt, and he did that well for so much of the day.
He holed a 35-foot birdie putt for his first lead on the par-3 14th, gave it back with a poor chip, and then drove the 283-yard 16th green to set up a closing stretch of three straight birdies.
The day started with another development: Patrick Reed withdrew with a sore ankle, the second straight week he has had to withdraw.
Reed is No. 22 in the FedEx Cup, and there are only two tournaments left to qualify for the Ryder Cup. He is No. 9 in the standings, and only the top six automatically qualify. The idea was to give it another week of rest and being ready for the next one.
Nelly Korda's sensational summer form is showing no sign of dipping.
Two weeks after winning a gold medal at the Tokyo Olympics, the top-ranked Korda began her bid for a second major title in two months by shooting 5-under 67 to share the first-round lead at the Women’s British Open on Thursday.
Korda rolled in a 5-foot putt at No. 18 at Carnoustie for her eighth birdie of a round that also contained three bogeys in overcast, chilly but largely wind-free conditions over the links in eastern Scotland. She was later joined on 5 under by Sweden’s Madelene Sagstrom, who has never recorded a top-10 finish at a major, and South Korea's Sei Young Kim, a major champion last year and the No. 4.
The 23-year-old Korda is the new superstar of women’s golf, having climbed to No. 1 by winning the PGA Championship in June and followed that up by winning the Olympic golf tournament in Tokyo this month. The American has four wins in 14 events in 2021 and said she has a “target on my back” for the last of the five majors.
“I try to take the mindset of every day’s a new day,” said Korda, who is a combined 87 under par for her last 21 rounds. "It doesn’t matter what my ranking is. Everyone’s going into this event prepared and wanting to win.
“That’s kind of like the mindset that I try to take into every event.”
The Women’s Open is her first event since the Olympics and she carried the momentum to Carnoustie, holing a left-to-right 20-footer for birdie at No. 3 — the first of three birdies in a four-hole span to immediately throw down the challenge to her rivals.
Korda, who wore bulky, oven-style mitts between shots at times during chilly morning conditions that contrasted with what she experienced in Tokyo, rebounded from her second bogey of the day, at No. 12, by making a downhill putt for birdie at the next and picked up another shot at the par-5 14th after reaching the green in two.
She finished birdie-birdie by hitting her approach close at No. 18 with an 8-iron from the center of the fairway.
“Very happy,” Korda said of her start. “Honestly, we didn’t have much wind today. It was very chilly in the morning — that was the only thing against us. Other than that, the wind kept calm and I took advantage of it.”
Korda has been on the road for six weeks, because of her appearances at the Evian Championship in France — the fourth major of the year, where she placed 19th — and then the Olympics, where she had a one-shot victory.
“A little tired but I am going to give it my all these next three day, go home next week, and have one week at home. Sleep in my bed for the first time in six weeks — that will be nice,” she said. “And then Solheim and we start up again.”
The 77th-ranked Sagstrom was playing in a group containing European Solheim Cup captain Catriona Matthew, just behind Korda, and will have left a positive impression ahead of the naming of the six wild-card selections on Monday.
She birdied four of her first six holes and twice held a two-shot lead on her back nine. She kept her round going with some decisive par putts but couldn’t do so at No. 18 after finding a bunker to the right of the fairway off the tee. She hit out to leave herself a tough up-and-down for par, but leaked her par putt right.
“Of course I want to show off my game to her, I can’t deny that,” Sagstrom said of Matthew. “I mean, I’m playing well at the moment. Who knows where her mind is at right now?”
Kim is in the mix at another major having won one for the first time at the PGA Championship last year. She also finished third at the ANA Inspiration in April.
Her only dropped shot was at the par-4 15th, which she reached in the lead after making birdie at No. 14 to move to 6 under.
Georgia Hall of England, the 2018 champion, bogeyed the last to drop out of the lead and to 4 under alongside an unheralded playing partner in 21-year-old Scottish amateur Louise Duncan, who goes to Stirling University in Scotland.
“It was a ridiculous amount of fun, I wasn’t expecting that at all,” said Duncan, who made an eagle and four birdies. “I was so nervous at the start. I was shaking and could barely put the ball on the tee. To actually make contact and it go straight was a bonus."
Former major champion Lexi Thompson was in a group at 3 under, while defending champion Sophia Popov chipped in for birdie at No. 1 on her way to shooting even-par 72.
Former British Open champion Henrik Stenson and Maverick Antcliff both shot a 5-under 67 to share the lead after the opening round of the Czech Masters on Thursday.
Stenson hit an eagle on the par-5 ninth hole and added three birdies for a flawless round to impress Europe’s Ryder Cup captain Padraig Harrington, who was playing alongside the Swede.
“I’m very happy with the score," said Stenson, who hasn't won on the European Tour since his 2016 British Open victory. “I hit some really good shots, on nine in particular, those two good ones. There were a couple of swings I’m not overly happy with – my commitment – I’ve been working hard on the swing, I need to keep on working hard."
Australia’s Antcliff, seeking his first European Tour title, finished with six birdies and a bogey.
“I got off to a solid start and tried to keep things moving forward," Antcliff said.
Nine players were one shot back tied for third.
They include Ryder Cup hopeful Danny Willett of England, 2016 Czech Masters champion Paul Peterson of the United States, and home favorite Ondrej Lieser of the Czech Republic.
Willett is trying to get on the European Ryder Cup team and a win at the Albatross Golf Resort near Prague would put him in contention. Europe faces the U.S. at Whistling Straits in September.
“It’d be amazing to be on the team, it’d probably have to be with a pick this late on,” Willett said. “Nice to play good golf, regardless."
Harrington carded a 70 to tie for 18th.
The Czech Masters returned to European Tour after one-year absence due to the coronavirus pandemic.