Thomas opens de­fense in Malaysia at 6 back

San Francisco Chronicle - - SCOREBOARD -

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

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

Smith opened with a blem­ish­free 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 at Sil­ver­ado Re­sort in Napa, had an open­ing 67 to be three shots off the lead.

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 in Malaysia 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 U.S. Open.

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

Schauf­fele, the U.S. tour rookie of the year, said he was tak­ing plenty of no­tice of 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, and Bradley ea­gled the 12th hole to make amends for his sole bo­gey.

Smith, an Aus­tralian, posted eight birdies, in­clud­ing five on the front nine.

LPGA Tour:

South Korean Sung Hyun Park, who won the U.S. Women’s Open this year for her first ma­jor and is No. 2 in the world, birdied her last two holes for a 6-un­der 66 and a share of the lead in the LPGA KEB Hana Bank Cham­pi­onship in In­cheon, South Korea. Park was tied for the firstround lead with Min-Sun Kim and Min­jee Lee.

Cristie Kerr, com­ing off a vic­tory last week in France, was among those at 67.

Euro­pean Tour:

Defending cham­pion and home fa­vorite Francesco Moli­nari was among six play­ers who shared a one-stroke lead af­ter the open­ing round of the Ital­ian Open in Monza.

Jamie Don­ald­son, Ki­radech Aphibarn­rat, Ed­die Pep­perell, Matt Wal­lace and Alexan­der Bjork also shot 7-un­der 64s at the Golf Club Mi­lano, next to Monza’s For­mula One cir­cuit.

Masters cham­pion Ser­gio Gar­cia stood in a group two strokes be­hind the lead­ers, and play­ing part­ner and fel­low Spa­niard Jon Rahm was among those three shots be­hind.

Stan­ley Chou / Getty Im­ages

Justin Thomas swings away dur­ing round one of the CIMB Classic in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, where he is the defending cham­pion.

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