Thomas hard-pressed to de­fend CIMB Clas­sic

The Province - - SPORTS -

KUALA LUMPUR, Malaysia — Justin Thomas col­lected the Jack Nick­laus Award as the U.S. PGA Tour player of the year a cou­ple days be­fore head­ing to Malaysia in a bid to win his third suc­ces­sive CIMB Clas­sic.

Lit­tle won­der, then, the twotime de­fend­ing cham­pion was slightly off his game in the first round Thurs­day, man­ag­ing only a 2-un­der-par 70 to sit six strokes be­hind leader Cameron Smith of Aus­tralia.

Smith opened with a blem­ish-free 8-un­der 64 and leads a U.S. PGA Tour event af­ter the first round for the first time in 64 starts.

Kee­gan Bradley, Xan­der Schauf­fele and Poom Sak­sansin of Thai­land were tied for sec­ond at 7-un­der. Bren­dan Steele, com­ing off a vic­tory last week at the Safe­way Open, had an open­ing 67.

Nick Tay­lor of Ab­bots­ford was the top Cana­dian at 2-un­der 70, putting him in a tie for 23rd. Adam Had­win of Ab­bots­ford was tied for 37th with a 1-un­der 71 while Toronto-born Richard Lee was tied for 60th af­ter shoot­ing 1-over 73. Gra­ham DeLaet of Wey­burn, Sask. strug­gled at 5-over 77 and is in a tie for 72nd.

Thomas has barely had time to catch his breath af­ter win­ning the FedEx Cup and play­ing in the Pres­i­dents Cup. He won his first tour ti­tle here two years ago. He suc­cess­fully de­fended it last year, and has had a trans­for­ma­tive 2017 in which he’s won five ti­tles and his first ma­jor, the PGA Cham­pi­onship.

He’s aim­ing to be the first player to win the same tour­na­ment three years in a row since Steve Stricker at the John Deer Clas­sic from 2009-11.

Schauf­fele, the U.S. tour rookie of the year, said he no­ticed how Thomas ap­proaches this course and is try­ing to keep it sim­ple.

“The rough has been up ap­par­ently com­pared to last year, that’s what Justin told me,” he said. “I pretty much tried to copy ev­ery­thing that he did be­cause I fig­ured he’s a good guy to im­i­tate out here.”

Thomas mixed five birdies with three bo­geys. Schauf­fele and Poom made seven birdies to go into early con­tention, while Bradley ea­gled the 12th hole to make amends for his sole bo­gey.

Smith, an Aus­tralian, posted a blem­ish-free round of eight birdies, in­clud­ing five on the front nine for a 64.

He’s chas­ing his sec­ond ti­tle of the year af­ter win­ning the Zurich Clas­sic in April.

The Amer­i­can trio of Kevin Na, Gary Wood­land, and Pat Perez were also in con­tention in the Asian Tour event af­ter card­ing 66s.

Hideki Mat­suyama, the 2016 run­ner-up, fal­tered with two bo­geys to sit with Thomas in a tie for 23rd.

— GETTY IM­AGES

Amer­i­can Justin Thomas did not have a great first round Thurs­day at the CIMB Clas­sic in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, a tour­na­ment he has won the past two years, shoot­ing a round of 70 to sit six strokes back of leader Cameron Smith of Aus­tralia.

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