NASSAU, Bahamas (AP) — Paul Casey is off to a good start in his final chance to win a tournament this year.
Casey birdied the final hole at Albany Golf Club on Thursday for a 6-under 66 that gave him a share of the first-round lead with Jimmy Walker and Zach Johnson in the Hero World Challenge.
The scenery and tropical sunshine made it feel like a working vacation, and a gentle breeze off the tip of New Providence island only added to the relaxation. Hideki Matsuyama (75) was the only player in the 18-man field who didn’t break par.
Defending champion Jordan Spieth made a hole-in-one with a 6-iron on the second hole and finally added a birdie on a par 5 to join a large group at 67 that included Bubba Watson and Adam Scott, who lives at Albany and still holds – barely – the course record of 65.
Casey is among five players in this field of top-50 players who has yet to win this year.
“The only blemish I can think of is maybe I left a putt short on line, which is a little criminal,” Casey said. “Other than that, I played some really, really nice golf.”
He wasn’t alone. Walker made quick strides with a new move in his swing and produced eight birdies, six of them in an eight-hole stretch on the back nine.
Johnson recovered from a slow start that could have been worse. He originally was penalized one shot for marking his ball off the green at the par-5 third, only for the penalty to be rescinded when officials determined it was too difficult on some holes to determine where the putting surface ended.
“When we started rolling the greens and mowing them down at tournament height, and then the sun came out, we had a situation in a lot of places where you couldn’t differentiate between the collar and the green,” said Mark Russell, the tour’s vice president of competition. “Rather than put the players in a situation where they were going to have a problem, we took care of it.”
The weather played a big role in the low scoring. Still, there was one noticeable difference from past years. This was the fewest number of rounds over par on the first day, and there had been no shortage of rounds in the upper 70s and 80s.
Part of that might be the first time the World Challenge has been played at Albany Golf Club. It was at Isleworth last year in Florida, and at Sherwood Country Club in California for 14 years.
Then again, players have been competing around the world – Spieth and Scott in Australia last week, Johnson at Sea Island two weeks ago.
There were a few exceptions. Walker hasn’t played since Las Vegas in mid-October and he has just begun to work with Butch Harmon on a move in which his head moves down the target line, similar to how David Duval swung the club.
“It’s something he’s been trying to get me to do for a while, and it’s tough,” Walker said. “I told him I was going to make a really tough commitment to try to do it. I’ve been swinging a certain way for a long time and it’s a hard habit to break.”
It didn’t go so well in the pro-am, mainly because there was a lot of standing around. In twosomes, Walker found his groove.
Scott started par-birdie-eagle until losing some momentum with a bogey, and then he added three birdies on the back nine. Spieth’s start was sensational, a 6-iron that landed in front of the hole and dropped in the cup.
“Absolutely flushed it right at the hole and didn’t think it went in,” Spieth said. “I started walking because balls have been sticking on the green, so I thought it stuck. But I guess it just crept forward that extra 2 feet.”
He didn’t get much help from the crowd reaction, mainly because there wasn’t much of a crowd. No more than two dozen fans were with any group.
Dustin Johnson might have had the largest gallery when he added his coach, a social media consultant, his wife, her brothers and their girlfriends. He was happy just to be playing after he cut his right heel coming out of the water from diving on Tuesday.
“I thought it was just a scratch,” he said. “Then I was just sitting in the boat, looked down and there was blood everywhere.”
He played the opening round in tennis shoes and managed just fine with a 68.
Anirban Lahiri of India, playing on a sponsor exemption had a 69 that included a bogey on the par-5 ninth when he hit a sand wedge out of the dunes that went over the green and over some 25 yards of water near the 18th fairway.