SAN ANTONIO — Branden Grace is getting hot at the right time, and he looks to be settled in this week on a golf course on which he keeps improving his results.
Branden Grace at Texas Open
Maybe it’s time for the ultra-talented Grace — who is the latest in a long line of great golfers from South Africa — to win again. He fashioned seven birdies in his first 14 holes and settled for a 6-under-par 66 to establish a one-shot lead after the first round of the Valero Texas Open, played on Thursday under mostly benign conditions at the TPC San Antonio Oaks Course.
Will MacKenzie, John Huh, Stewart Cink and Steven Alker of New Zealand are a shot back after 67s. MacKenzie and Huh played in the morning wave, and Cink and Alker teed off in the afternoon on a track that is more difficult to figure out than quantum physics.
Thirteen players — most notably Brooks Koepka, former U.S. Open winner Graeme McDowell of Northern Ireland and Ken Duke — finished their first rounds with 68s. Duke had the shot of the round, holing a long, high bunker blast that rolled down a slope and in for an eagle on the par-5 14th.
Grace, who has won 11 times as a professional, including the 2016 RBC Heritage for his only PGA Tour victory, was 3 under on the front nine after four birdies and a bogey. He racked up three more birdies on the back nine and signed for a round that included hitting 13 of 14 fairways, 14 of 18 greens in regulation and 26 putts.
“I was very pleased with my ball-striking,” Grace said. “Around this place, to miss only one fairway is pretty special. I hit it very good to the greens as well. Gave myself some short birdies chances. All nice, but I left a few out there but I made a couple of nice ones.”
Grace, who went 5-0 as a member of the International team in the Presidents Cup in 2015, is making his fourth consecutive start in this tournament. He has improved in every appearance, finishing tied for 79th in 2014, tied for 30th in 2015 and — after a closing-round 67 — tied for ninth last year.
He finished tied for 11th last week at the RBC Heritage but said he could feel his game coming on the week before at the Masters.
“It started at Augusta — making the cut was big for me and progressed nicely over the weekend and obviously last week defending is pretty special and you get the positive vibes and the memories.
“I’ve played well here in the past. You have to be precise and you have to pretty much work out a plan attacking the greens. There are some severe slopes out there, and then, again, the wind usually blows.”
Cink, whose latest win was in the 2009 British Open, began his round on the 10th tee and played his first nine holes in 35 but turned it on in the final nine. He recorded four birdies in a five-hole stretch beginning with the par-5 second.
“I hit a lot of really nice iron shots and hit the ball the right distance,” Cink said. “That’s not that easy to do on this golf course.”
Defending champion Charley Hoffman shot 71 on Thursday, finishing five shots in back of Grace, while three-time Valero Texas Open winner Justin Leonard was among the players finishing at even-par 72.
Curtis Luck, the 2016 U.S. Amateur champion and World No. 1 amateur, made his professional debut Thursday, shooting a 73 in the morning wave. Luck also won last year’s Asia-Pacific Amateur Championship and the World Amateur Team Championship en route to becoming the top-ranked amateur in the world.
England’s Ian Poulter, who began the season on a major medical extension because of an injury in 2016, must earn 63 FedExCup points or $30,624 at this tournament to remain exempt for the remainder of the campaign. He could get that done with a top-30 finish, but has his work cut out for him after a 75 in the first round.
NOTES: Since being moved to its current spot on the schedule in 2009, the winner of the Valero Texas Open has made it through at least two playoffs events six of eight times. Jimmy Walker (2015), Australia’s Adam Scott (2010) and Zach Johnson (2009) made it through the season-ending Tour Championship. … Since 1970, there have only been four international winners of the Valero Texas Open, three of whom emerged since 2010, when the tournament moved to the TPC San Antonio: Scott (2010), Martin Laird of Scotland (2013) and Steven Bowditch of Australia (2014). The fourth, Nick Price of Zimbabwe, defeated Steve Elkington of Australia in 1992 in sudden death at Oak Hills Country Club. … Ben Curtis, the 2012 champion in this event, withdrew from the tournament midway through the first round due to a shoulder injury