MEMPHIS – Spain’s Jon Rahm shot an 8-under-par 62 on Thursday to build a three-shot lead after the first round of the World Golf Championships-FedEx St. Jude Invitational.
After hosting a regular PGA Tour stop for 30 years, the St. Jude became a WGC event in 2019, taking the spot of the tournament formerly held at Firestone Country Club in Akron, Ohio.
Rahm never laid eyes on TPC Southwind until Wednesday, but he had no trouble making his way around the course Thursday. Coming off a tie for 11th at The Open Championship, the world’s eighth-ranked player began his round on the back nine by birdieing three of his first nine holes.
Rahm added two birdies to begin his back nine and reeled off three more on Nos. 6-8 for a total of eight on his bogey-free card. He made more than 140 feet in putts for the round.
“It just felt good,” he told the Golf Channel of his feel for the greens following two events on the island of Ireland. “Once you come into a tournament and you hit a few putts, it’s just for the most part you’re back here. To me, it’s always easier to adjust to quick greens than going to slow greens.”
Rahm will begin Friday with a three-shot cushion over a group of five players at 5 under: Patrick Cantlay, Bubba Watson, Australia’s Cameron Smith and Japan’s Shugo Imahira and Hideki Matsuyama.
It was a welcome bounce-back for Watson, who tied for 51st at The Open to go with three missed cuts in his first six events after the Masters — including the U.S. Open and PGA Championship. He hasn’t finished higher than 34th since sharing 12th place at Augusta.
Watson had seven birdies to offset a pair of bogeys Thursday.
“When you think about a big hitter, they’ve seen success (in Memphis),” he told the Golf Channel. “Just in my schedule, I haven’t played here that much, so in coming over here, just trying to hit the fairways. Luckily for us, the fairways are a little bit softer right now because of the rain the last couple of days.
“Right now it’s working.”
Watson credited working with his pastor and a mental coach over the past two weeks in being able to brush off his two mid-round bogeys to gain three shots back over his final four holes.
“If you can believe that, I’m not focusing on golf,” he said. “I’m trying to be the best person I can be, the best husband, the best dad I can be, the best friend I can be. So when you look back on it on paper, all the wins and everything, I’d get rid of them in a heartbeat to be the best person I can be. I’ve had some struggles off the course, just working on some things.
“It’ll trickle that way. When I get it right outside the ropes, it’ll help me going forward. Today was one of those days. I got the right thoughts, and it worked out beautifully today.”
Top-ranked Brooks Koepka is six shots off the lead after an opening 68. He made the turn at even par, and then he offset a double bogey on the par-3 11th hole with four birdies on the back nine. He is among a group of players at 2 under that includes Phil Mickelson and Justin Thomas, the defending champion of the WGC event at Firestone.
Dustin Johnson, the defending champion of the St. Jude event, recovered from a 3-over start to go 4 under through his final nine holes to get into the clubhouse at 1 under for the round. He had seven birdies, four bogeys and a double bogey on his card.
The pre-tournament favorite by many oddsmakers, Johnson is tied with another pre-tournament favorite Rory McIlroy. The Northern Irishman was 3 over through 12 holes but closed with four birdies over his final five holes to end up at 1 under.
They will have a lot of work to do to reel in Rahm, who has 11 top-10 finishes worldwide this year, including a victory at the Dubai Duty Free Irish Open three weeks ago.
“Just letting the feel and the memory take you back to American golf,” he said. “I think the biggest thing coming here is adjusting to the jet lag and making sure my body and mind were rested more than my golf swing or anything else being in check.”
NOTES: England’s Justin Rose opened with a 3-under 67. … Imahira is seeking his first top-10 finish in just his 12th career PGA Tour start. … Tiger Woods, who is not in the field this week, is the all-time leader with 18 career WGC victories. Johnson is second with six, followed by Mickelson and Australia’s Geoff Ogilvy with three apiece. … Woods, rated fifth, and Italy’s sixth-ranked Francesco Molinari are the top players skipping this week’s event.
–Field Level Media