The Northern Trust is offering some unpredictability to begin the FedExCup Playoffs, as Glen Oaks Club, a New York venue that has never been the site of a PGA Tour event, is hosting the tournament. With nobody in the field having the advantage of course familiarity, the tournament is wide open.
A conservative approach ended up being the intelligent first-round play, as Russell Henley was able to best navigate the new surroundings, shooting a 6-under 64 to nab the 18-hole lead.
“I don’t think anybody knows this course that well just because it’s not a regular stop,” said Henley. “So I just tried to play somewhat conservative and just make sure I was hitting to the fat part of the green and give myself some birdie putts.”
Henley shined in the opening round despite entering the playoffs in poor form, with a T71 (12-over) at the PGA Championship and a T66 at the 78-man no-cut WGC-Bridgestone.
“I would say the last — my last two events, I didn’t play that well but my attitude was just bad,” Henley said. “You know, I just got frustrated and I think the whole year, I’ve been playing really well, and I think my whole year is highlighted by my win at Houston but I’ve played really well in the majors besides one round. Just trying to stay confident and keep believing in myself.”
Henley leads three-time season winner Dustin Johnson (65) by one stroke.
Two back, at 3-under 66, is the trio of Scott Brown, Camilo Villegas, and Chris Kirk.
TOP 10: ROUND ONE
1 Russell Henley -6
2 Dustin Johnson -5
T3 Scott Brown -4
T3 Camilo Villegas -4
T3 Chris Kirk -4
T6 Patrick Cantlay -3
T6 Bubba Watson -3
T6 Harold Varner III -3
T6 Kelly Kraft -3
T6 Louis Oosthuizen -3
T6 Martin Flores -3
T12 Justin Rose, Justin Thomas, Rickie Fowler, Jon Rahm -2
T20 Jason Day, Jordan Spieth, Henrik Stenson -1
T39 Jimmy Walker, Patrick Reed E
T55 Ian Poulter, Matt Kuchar, Francesco Molinari +1
T80 Phil Mickelson, Brooks Koepka, Zach Johnson, Charley Hoffman +2
T95 Rory McIlroy, Gary Woodland +3
T102 Hideki Matsuyama, Steve Stricker +4
120 Rafa Cabrera-Bello +9
HOW HENLEY DID IT
In round one Henley played conservative, yet was rewarded with eight birdies to lead the field. He went 32-32 for his 64 with four birdies and a bogey on each nine.
Henley’s short game was especially on target as he led the field in Strokes Gained: Around-the-Green and was third in Strokes Gained: Putting.
OTHER GREAT FIRST ROUNDS
Bubba Watson, who has been fighting through a disappointing season, announced today that he is going to be taking a break for at least four months once his playoffs are finished.
Currently at 111th in the FedExCup standings, a bad performance this week would start that extended vacation early, as only the Top 100 players move on to Boston.
In round one, though, Bubba looked like he is not quite ready to go on vacation just yet, as the two-time Masters champ shot a bogey-free 3-under 67 and is currently in a tie for sixth.
“My thing is just play until they tell me I can’t play anymore,” said Watson. “You know, truthfully, when I’m done with the Playoffs, no matter where that is, I’m taking at least four and a half months off. I won’t play until next year.”
Watson has nothing better than a T17 in his last eight starts, but looked much better in Old Westbury, particularly on the greens where he was fifth in Strokes Gained: Putting.
PGA Champion Justin Thomas, who is second in the standings, was not about to succumb to the hangover that often accompanies a first major victory.
At 2 over after just three holes, Thomas used a bogey-free 3 under back nine to finish with a 2-under 68, keeping his back-to-back hopes alive.
“I had a really hard time getting focused and getting into it today,” said Thomas. “I don’t know why, what the purpose was. I told Jimmie, ‘man, I’m having a hard time with this today and I need your help.’ He kept me in it and we tried to talk to our shots a little more. That birdie on 18, the ninth hole, kind of got me going.”
A 161-yard hole-out on the 18th for eagle was the highlight of the tremendous round of Camilo Villegas: a 4-under 66.
Leading in the field in putting, Villegas finished his first round just two strokes out of the lead. At 98th in the standings, this improves his chances greatly of making it to Boston next week.
WE EXPECTED BETTER
The hottest man in golf lately is the same man who leads the FedExCup standings going into the playoffs: Hideki Matsuyama. The 25-year-old is a lock for the Tour Championship at East Lake, but played surprisingly poor in round one, not carding a single birdie in a 4-over 74.
Matsuyama carded par on his first 12 holes before bogeys on four of his last six holes.
Defending FedExCup Champion Rory McIlroy strongly considered sitting out the playoffs this year to rest a nagging rib injury that has hurt his results all year.
Believing that his rib is unlikely to get worse, McIlroy did tee up at Old Westbury, but did not look anything like the man who lit up last year’s playoffs. Only a handful of players had more bogeys than the six Rory carded, leading to a 3-over 73 that has him at T95.
Spain’s Rafa Cabrera-Bello was considered a bit of a darkhorse, coming into the playoffs off a regular season where he finished T4 at both THE PLAYERS and the Open Championship.
A nightmare stretch where Cabrera-Bello opened the back nine with five consecutive bogeys and then a double tanked his standing, and after the carnage, he posted a 9-over 79, the single worst round in the 120-man field.
PHIL’S PRESIDENT’S CUP AUDITION
Phil Mickelson has played in every Presidents Cup since the tournament first started in 1994. Unfortunately, his chances of making the 2017 version have taken a serious hit with his uncharacteristically poor play over the past several months.
“I would love to be on that team but I’ve got to bring something to the table. And so if I can play well this week and next week and show that I’m playing as well as I know I’m playing, but the only thing that matters is the score,” explained Mickelson. “So I’ve got to go shoot scores.”
He is unlikely to make the field automatically, but could be a captain’s pick, if he can convince captain Steve Stricker that he is worthy of one. A 2-over 72 in round one did not help.
Mickelson did have four birdies, including back-to-back on his final two holes after playing his first 16 in 4-over, which included a pair of double-bogeys (1 and 14).
“I made some dumb mistakes and a couple of doubles, and had some putting issues,” said Mickelson. “But I really — I had a good day today because I hit 11 fairways. The long game is starting to feel easy. I’m hitting iron shots with ease, and what I did really well last year, which was putt, I struggled tee-to-green last year, you putted really well.”
QUOTABLE: RUSSELL HENLEY
“I think a lot of the reason why I played well is just because I’m playing to the fat part of the green. I’m not quite comfortable with knowing exactly what’s up there with some of the pins. Just trying to hit the fairway, hit the green and I think that keeps it simple.”