Smotherman posts 63 for one-shot lead in Mexico, Rahm 4 back

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VALLARTA, Mexico (AP) — Austin Smotherman already has his name on the Mexico Open trophy. He finished his round Thursday as though he'd love to see it on there again, closing with four straight birdies for an 8-under 63 and a one-shot lead over Erik van Rooyen and Tano Goya.

Masters champion Jon Rahm, who won the Mexico Open at Vidanta for his only PGA Tour title a year ago, had five birdies on his last 11 holes to overcome a sluggish start for a 67.

Smotherman is winless on the PGA Tour. He won the Mexico Open in 2018 on a different golf course — it was held in Tijuana that year — and when it was part of the PGA Tour Latinoamerica schedule.

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Even so, the Mexico Open dates to 1944. His name is on the trophy with Ben Crenshaw, Billy Casper, Lee Trevino, Bobby Locke and Roberto De Vicenzo.

“I mean, still get a little bit of some goosebumps thinking about it,” Smotherman said. "Just the reception, winning an event like that, the Mexico Open, which has such a deep history. There are names on that trophy that are in the Hall of Fame.

“A national open anywhere is very special.”

Smotherman played bogey-free at Vidanta Vallarta. He missed only three greens on a gorgeous morning. The last time was on his final hole, the par-3 ninth, and he chipped in for his eighth birdie of the round.

Van Rooyen also had a big finish, playing his final five holes in 4 under. That included an eagle on the par-4 15th when he holed out from 141 yards. He also had a pair of birdies on the pars 5 on the back nine.

His best moment might have been a par on the 10th. Standing over the shot with a 4-iron, the South African backed off and said, “Bees! Bees! Bees!” Before long, Chez Reavie and Francesco Molinari and the caddies hit the turf to avoid a swarm of bees.

“I just told my caddie, ‘Bees, bees, bees.’ And he looks at me like I'm crazy,” van Rooyen said. “So I dropped down, then he sees them, he dropped down. Frankie and Chez, they look at me like I’m nuts and then 30 seconds later the bees just went right at them. It’s funny, but certainly don’t want to get stung by those bad boys.”

Goya played bogey-free and finished with a birdie from left of the green on the par-5 18th.

Canada's Taylor Pendrith Tony Finau were among five players at 65, and one of them felt just as good as Smotherman. Raul Pereda of Mexico, who played college golf at Jacksonville University, made his PGA Tour debut as a sponsor exemption in his national Open.

Pereda missed a 4-foot birdie putt on the par-5 18th but had no complaints about his first time playing on the PGA Tour.

His coach at Jacksonville, Mike Blackburn, sent him a text ahead of his first round to enjoy every shot as it comes. He followed the plan perfectly.

“I'm going to have a cold beer after this round today with my parents and just keep it very simple,” Pereda said. “I don't think I need to get ahead of myself. It's just like any other sanctioned tour event for me. It's 18 holes a day, and just 18 chances for birdie, and just commit to every shot.”

Rahm is playing for the second time in three weeks since his Masters victory. His start was less than ideal in the best of the weather. He twice failed to get up-and-down from just off the green, missing par putts from the 6-foot range.

But his round started to turn when he took an aggressive line over the water and left of the pin to about 7 feet on the par-3 17th and holed the putt for one of only two birdies on that hole in the first round.

He finished with a 25-foot birdie putt, his third birdie putt of 15 feet or longer.

“Those first 13 holes we had virtually no wind, about as easy conditions as it can get. I wish I would have taken advantage of it more,” Rahm said. “I’m happy I played as good as I did on the back nine and capped it off with the putt on the last hole.”

Michael Gligic of Burlington, Ont., finished with a 74.


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