If Justin Thomas is going to win his third straight CIMB Classic, he’s got some work to do. The 2017 FedEx Cup winner and two-time defending champion in Malaysia began his 2017/18 US PGA Tour season with a good-but-not-great two-under 70 at TPC Kuala Lumpur, his second-worst round in the event.
That leaves the 24-year-old six strokes back of Day 1 leader Cameron Smith, who shot a bogey-free 64 to move to a one-stroke lead over a trio of golfers, including 2017 tour rookie of the year Xander Schauffele.
Smith, 24, who teamed with Jonas Blixt to win last April’s Zurich Classic of New Orleans, made eight birdies in his first start of the new tour season. It’s the first time the Australian has ever held either a share or the outright lead in a tour event after the opening 18 holes. His previous best start in 63 tournaments is a T-2 at the 2016 AT&T Pebble Beach Pro-Am, where he eventually finished T-11.
“My ball striking was really good today,” Smith said. “And [being from Australia], I’ve played quite a bit in Asia so it was pretty easy for me to read the greens.”
Thomas, who is attempting to become the first player to win the same event in three straight years since Steve Stricker at the John Deere Classic (2009-11), made five birdies offset by three bogeys, including two on his back nine, to sit in a tie for 23rd in the 78-player field. Entering the event, his scoring average in eight previous rounds at TPC Kuala Lumpur was a remarkable 65.88.
Schauffele, having won the Tour Championship three weeks ago in his last start before earning ROY honours, resumed his solid play in his first start in the event, making seven birdies and seemingly adjusting easily to the new environment.
“It was boring, which I guess is a good thing out here,” said Schauffele, who was paired with Thomas in the opening round, of his play. “I hit a lot of fairways, kind of made an easy day out of it. I tried to copy everything [Justin] did as I figured he’s a good guy to imitate out here.”
While Thomas puts himself in a tougher spot to start the event than he would have liked, he can feel better knowing he overcame a four-stroke deficit entering the final round a year ago and still won the tournament.
Tied with Schauffele in second place is Thailand’s Poom Saksansin, a 24-year-old two-time Asian Tour winner making his first start in a PGA Tour event. The last player to win in his first tour appearance was Jim Benepe at the 1988 Western Open.
Also tied in second is Keegan Bradley. The former US PGA Championship winner has a history for fast starts at the CIMB Classic, having shot no worse than 66 in the first round in his four appearances in Malaysia.
Three players are tied for fifth with 66s: Kevin Na, Gary Woodland and Pat Perez. Among those with 67s who are tied for eighth are Brendan Steele, last week’s winner at the Safeway Open, Anirhan Lahiri and Davis Love III.