Detroit— Birdies are plentiful at the Rocket Mortgage Classic, which is why Tony Finau was kicking himself — just a little bit — even after carding an 8-under 64 to take the first-round lead Thursday at Detroit Golf Club.
What could Finau be upset about, especially considering he was just days removed from a win at the 3M Open, the third title of his PGA Tour career?
Probably the fact the single-round tournament record was there to be matched as Finau lined up a 20-foot birdie putt on the ninth green, his final hole of the day. His putt from him had the line but it came up just inches short, denying Finau from becoming the fourth golfer to shoot a 63 at the Rocket Mortgage Classic.
“My last shot lacked a lot of conviction,” Finau said. “I wanted to at least get it to the hole, give it a shot. A few of my putts were like that out there, just left them right in the heart a little short. Wasn’t super happy that I left it short, but overall it was a nice round.”
It’s hard to quibble much with the round Finau had considering he hit all 18 greens in regulation and didn’t have a single bogey. The par at the par-5 fourth hole might have felt like a bogey, but it didn’t change the fact Finau put himself in good position to become a back-to-back winner.
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“Obviously 64 is a very good round,” Finau said. “But this is a golf course where a lot of guys are going to make birdies, so anytime you can get off to a fast start, I think it’s much needed on a golf course like this.”
Finau was joined at the top of the leaderboard by relative unknown Taylor Pendrith, who had nine birdies on his round that included a bogey on the 18th. Five players were two shots back at 6 under, including former US Open champion Webb Simpson, Michael Thompson, Cam Champ, Matt Wallace and Lee Hodges.
There were plenty of birdies in the morning wave of Thursday’s first round. By the time the afternoon groups hit the course, the wind had picked up and the scoring became tougher.
Only Charley Hoffman made a significant charge in the afternoon, getting to 6 under while starting on the back nine before missing a short birdie putt on No. 5 and following that with a bogey at No. 6. He then three-putted the par- 5 seventh on his way to a second-nine 36 to end the round at 5-under 67.
Hoffman was part of a logjam three shots off the lead with 13 other players, including American Ryder Cup captain Zach Johnson.
“I wasn’t out here this morning, but I know obviously the greens signed up a little,” Hoffman said. “I watched a little on TV this morning, balls were spinning a little bit more than they were bouncing.
“You know what, it’s a good test of golf around this place. If you’re in position, you can make birdies like those guys this morning, but once it starts bouncing on you like it did this afternoon, it’s hard to get the ball real close.”
From the morning wave Thursday, 16 players were 5 under or better; Hoffman was one of just five to finish at 5 under or better in the afternoon wave.
Simpson, who was one of the early starters, is ranked 125th in the FedExCup standings and is scrambling to make the playoff field after missing the cut in three of his last four events. Some extra work on his swing from him last week paid off with birdies at all four par 5s.
He’s hoping Thursday is a sign of things to come over the next three days.
“No 5s on the scorecard; that’s always a good thing,” Simpson said. “I hit a couple loose shots there on 1 and 2 off the tee, but got away with it, had clean looks, made birdies on both those holes. Around Detroit Golf Club that’s not very normal to hit it in the rough two holes in a row, make two birdies. But just took care of the par-5’s like you have to do here.
“Overall just really solid, didn’t give myself too many putts where I’m sweating over them for par. Super happy with the work I put in last week on my week off and yeah, right where I want to be after Round 1.”
While Finau is riding a wave of high-level play and Simpson is hoping he’s turning things around, it could turn out to be a huge week for Pendrith, a 31-year-old rookie who earned his PGA Tour card after a fifth-place finish last year on the Korn Ferry Tour.
Things started well last fall for the Canadian, who found himself with a three-shot lead entering the final round of the Bermuda Classic in October. But he struggled that Sunday, shooting a 76 to finish in fifth place.
“I think every time you can put yourself into contention is obviously a new experience for me,” said Pendrith, who missed three months with a broken rib but has finished in the top 15 in two events since returning. “I learned a lot that day. It was obviously brutal conditions, but basically you can’t lay off, you’ve got to always keep trying to make birdies, especially out here. Looks like the scores are pretty low, so should be a bit of a birdie-fest until unless the weather changes.
“But the golf course is playing great and there’s tons of opportunities, so just keep the pedal down.”
That shift in the weather came sooner than most thought in the form of gusty conditions Thursday afternoon, leaving those who played in the morning in good position heading into the second round.
“It’s in great shape,” Simpson said of Detroit Golf Club. “I know Detroit got a bunch of rain Sunday, a little bit yesterday, but it’s signed out. If we continue to see wind like we’ll have this afternoon and dry conditions, it will be really fast come Saturday, Sunday. It’s a great golf course.”