It wasn’t an ideal day Thursday at the Narashino Country Club — chilly, wet with rain falling most of the first round of the Zozo Championship.
The conditions didn’t bother Brendan Steele. Steele finished five shots behind defending champion Hideki Matsuyama last year but he clipped Hideki by seven shots to start his bid for the championship. Steele finished his round with four straight birdies and shot a six-under par 64 to hold the first round lead.
“Everybody says if you birdie 18, dinner tastes better,” Steele said. “But four in a row is definitely, really nice and feels good. “I love it here,” Steele said. “Loved the course last year — really happy be back.”
Sixth-ranked Xander Schauffele played with Matsuyama and opened with a 68. Schauffele appreciated the gallery enthusiasm for their home-country icon. “Yeah, it was cool,” he said. “He brought out most of the fans here on a wet and rainy day, so much appreciated.”
The field got to played preferred lies, but the storms got rough at times, with the Schauffele/Matsuyama group hitting the worst of it around the par-five 18th hole—usually one of the easiest on the course after starting on No. 10.
“I guess luck of the draw based on what hole you’re on,” Schauffele said. “I hit right when it started raining pretty hard and I couldn’t even fly my driver 250 yards. I hit a pretty good drive and just kind of saw the ball get knocked down by the rain, so I’m happy the rain stopped shortly after.”
Rickie Fowler rebounded after missing the cut last week in Las Vegas. Fowler birdied four of the five par threes on the tree-lined course. He overcame a double-bogey on his card and shot a three-under par 67.
“Definitely happy with it. Lot of good stuff out there today, just had a couple squirrelly ones when we had the rain come through for a couple holes,” Fowler said. “Had one on 17 when I missed the fairway there (and made bogey). When the ball gets wet, you lose a little control. Other than that, I feel like I did a good job, drove the ball well. And playing from the fairway with it being lift, clean and place, you can dry the ball off and definitely gives you a lot more control when you’re playing in conditions like this.”
Fowler looked back and said poor driving hurt him last week. “Obviously didn’t have the week we wanted last week, drove it poorly. But with some of the changes we’ve made and to have the finish that we did at Napa and kind of seeing a lot of good things, I’m definitely happy about it and excited to be here and off to a good start.”
Last week’s winner in Las Vegas, Tom Kim, opened with an even par round of 70.
Second Round Update: Rickie Fowler is back, at least he was on Friday as he carved out a sweet 63 that got him to 10-under par and tied for the lead. Rickie was co-leader with Andrew Putnam, who put an eight-under par 62 in the books. It was a low-scoring day as John Huh set a course record with a nine-under par round of 61. Huh had the 59-watch on but failed to make eagle at the easy par five 18th. He didn’t even make birdie. He’s in at eight-under, a shot behind Keegan Bradley.
The rains went away, there was little-to-no wind and with the golf ball in hand, the scores were low. With soft greens, it was like throwing darts for these players.
“I wish I knew,” Fowler said when asked about how he shot that low number. “I just did a good job of managing and accepting what I had and I’m really happy about that.”
Xander Schauffele was in at four-under while defending champion Hideki Matsuyama doesn’t look like he’ll repeat. He was at even-par through 36 and tied for 49th.