Mark Hubbard birdied the last four holes at TPC Scottsdale on Thursday to join Matthew NeSmith atop the leaderboard at eight-under 63 early in the first round of the US PGA Tour Phoenix Open.
Hubbard fired a career-low round and NeSmith matched his best round on tour as the Americans launched their bids for a first US PGA title.
Hubbard got things going with a 30-foot birdie putt at the second, and blasted out of a greenside bunker to six feet for a birdie at the third.
After birdies at nine and 13, he stormed home with a two-putt birdie at the par-five 15th, a five-foot birdie at the par-three 16th and a three-footer for birdie at 17 — where he reached the green of the par-four with his tee shot.
He joined NeSmith in the clubhouse on eight-under with a 20-foot birdie at the last.
“I love this tournament,” said Hubbard, who like his rivals this week is delighted to see the return of a signficant number of fans after pandemic restrictions have seen few spectators at tour events.
With about 5,000 admitted daily, it’s a far cry from the raucous norm for a tournament that usually attracts some 700,000 over the course of the week.
But even with the stadium style grandstand at the par-three 16th modified to accommodate less than 3,000 — rather than the 16,000 that usually pack into three levels of hospitality suites surrounding the hole — it was a welcome jolt of energy for players.
“It’s great to have fans back,” said Hubbard, whose best tour finish is a tie for second at the Houston Open in October of 2019.
NeSmith nearly aced the 16th, his tee shot taking one hop before settling six inches from the pin.
“I probably made the quietest almost hole-in-one ever on 16,” he said. “I got about six claps there and hit it to six inches.”
Even so, NeSmith said, “It was really nice to have fans again. It’s been kind of quiet and it’s just been like we’re all kind of playing together at home or something like that.
“So it’s really nice to feel a little bit of the nerves and get some claps.”
NeSmith, ranked 203rd in the world, had teed off on 10, where he rolled in a 15-foot birdie. He holed out from a greenside bunker for eagle at the 13th and with birdies at 14, 16 and 17 made the turn at six-under.
After a birdie at the third, he chipped in for his final birdie of the day at the sixth.
“I just kind of did everything that you’re supposed to,” NeSmith said. “Drive it in the fairway, hit the greens, try and make as many putts as possible and got lucky making a few short game shots in there, as well.”
McIlroy’s slow start
Americans Nate Lashley and Sam Burns were in the clubhouse on seven-under 64.
But some of the bigger names in the field didn’t find the going so simple.
World number six Rory McIlroy was pleased to post a one-under par 70 after opening with a double-bogey at the 10th and a bogey at 11.
“Being three-over through two isn’t ideal, especially on this golf course where you sort of need to make birdies,” said McIlroy, who rebounded with five birdies before a bogey at his penultimate hole, the eighth.
“I fought back well,” McIlroy said. “I wish I didn’t drop that shot coming in on the eighth hole, but shooting under par after the start wasn’t too bad.”