As is so often the case, the morning tee times produced the best scores at RACV Royal Pines during the first round of the Australian PGA Championship on Thursday.
Lucas Herbert and Brett Rankin leading the way at five under at the conclusion of day one, with rising star Min Woo Lee part of the chasing pack one shot back, while Adam Scott did his chances no harm with a two under round and two-time defending champion Cameron Smith hung on for a 74.
Playing in the third group teeing off the 10th, Victorian Herbert got off to a hot start, with two birdies followed by an eagle three at the par-5 12th. Before losing two shots to par at 13 and 14. Having struggled with a hand injury at the Australian Open, Herbert’s remaining 13 holes were equally up and down, a bogey at the 18th offset by four birdies playing the easier front nine on his second loop.
RIGHT: Adam Scott is in with a chance to win a second Australian PGA Championship after a two under par opening round. PHOTO: Bradley Kanaris/Getty Images.
“The course is in great shape, so I was just enjoying some nice weather, walking around a great golf course with one of my best mates on the bag. Yeah, that was more consuming my mind rather than score,” Herbert said after the round. “I didn't really feel like I got off to a great start because I wasn't really concentrating on that, and then I didn't feel like I fell too far backwards because I wasn't really concentrating on that.
“It's (hand) been a lot better. I can still just feel it a little bit at times. There was one shot into the eighth today that I felt it a bit and it was bit sore, but I think at the Open I was kind of flinching and trying to not hurt my hand whereas I'm not really doing that now.”
Teeing off just over an hour later from the same tee, Rankin’s matching 67 featured less fireworks, his six birdies and lone bogey also including four birdies on Royal Pines’ front nine.
The NT PGA and frequent pro-am winner in 2019 similarly acknowledging the benefits of a hot start, while ruing a few missed chances that could have seen him take the lead on his own.
“Definitely off to a good start,” Rankin said. “I hit like a 9 iron to about a foot on 11, so it was a little tap in there. Just drove the ball really well on the back nine, so I gave myself plenty of looks. Had like a three footer for birdie on 12, so all of a sudden I'm 2 under through three, feeling pretty comfortable. I know my game's good and I just sort of cruised along. Then I got hot towards the front nine, our back nine today. I missed a couple short ones out there, too, so it could have been really good, to be honest. I'll take 67.”
The group at five under includes former Australian Masters winner Nick Cullen, Travis Smyth Kiwi Ryan Chisnall, Wade Ormsby and Lee, who played alongside Scott and Stewart Cink in one of the most followed groups of the day on course.
“No. Golf is a weird sport, you go do your own thing and you can't really focus on other people,” Lee said when asked if he was daunted playing alongside two major winners. “It's pretty special to get that opportunity early on in pro careers like that. I'll just be grateful and take the opportunity.”
Scott was certainly impressed with Lee, who bounced back after a shaky start he admitted was largely down to still learning his trade, while he was happy with the state of his own game despite a double bogey at the par-4 13th caused by one bad swing on the tee that found the water right.
“I played good today,” Scott said. “Unfortunately, I really mis hit that driver at 13 and it cost me two. Other than that, it was pretty stress free. I was very happy with it. It wasn't that easy out there. I seemed to get a lot of in between numbers and when it's windy here, you kind of have to be a little bit careful because you don't want to be chipping short side around here, the grain is just too much to deal with. So I was pretty stress free. I wish I could have that swing on 13 over again, but all in all I feel good about my round.”
Scott’s two-under round of 70 was largely produced through solid work on Royal Pines’ grainy greens. The Queenslander holing a long putt on 10 for birdie, followed by another good roll that found the bottom of the cup for eagle at the par-5 15th.
“I'm putting good. I mean, look, it's not easy,” Scott said. “The course is in good shape, but there's so much grain around these greens that once you're out past 30 feet, even inside 30 feet, it's very hard controlling speed, putting through different grain patches. It's just the way it is. So you're going to have to be patient and just try and hit as good a putt as you can and I hit a few good ones and made a few.”
The former Masters winner’s Presidents Cup teammate Smith struggled and admitted to still lacking a little energy after the emotional roller coaster of last week’s loss to the Tiger Woods-led United States.
Trying to become just the second player to win three Australian PGA’s, Smith’s dinner will have tasted a little better after two birdies over his closing four holes undid some of the damage of a three hole stretch where he dropped four shots starting at the par-3 2nd his 11th hole of the opening round.
“I was just kind of a bit flat all day, couldn't really get any momentum going,” Smith said. “Hit a few good shots earlier in the round and didn't hole many putts, and then the run started to come there towards the end. Just one of those days. In the end, probably 2 over isn't that bad.
“I was four over at one point and had a couple birdies to get it back, so I got something to look forward to at least for tomorrow.”
Currently outside the cut line, Smith will be hoping the wind doesn’t get up too much in the afternoon on Friday as he attempts to place himself back in contention, both the joint leaders similarly hoping the afternoon yields some good scores as they look to consolidate their place at the top of leaderboard.
Herbert has his European Tour card for 2020 and is looking to get some early Race to Dubai points on the board for the new season that is already underway, while Rankin will be eyeing a second chance at status in Europe after missing out a qualifying school. The Queenslander full of confidence after his consistent play at home in 2019.
“Winning NT PGA just sort of gives you that confidence you know you can do it, your best golf can win on this Tour,” Rankin said. “It's a tough Tour, there's so many good players out here. So you gain that confidence from winning multiple pro-ams and you take that to the next level, you win a Tour event, and the next you're like, okay, I belong here. You gain confidence just from doing that.”