PONTE VEDRA BEACH (USA) : South Korea's Si Woo Kim wore a big smile as the best-placed Asian golfer in the star-studded field after signing for an opening 3-under 69 at The Players Championship here.
The 27-year-old knew he could have blown his chances early on for a second title at the PGA Tour's flagship tournament at TPC Sawgrass on Thursday but kept a cool head for a solid start in the US$25 million showpiece.
American Chad Ramey leads the star-studded tournament following a bogey-free 64, with two-time major winner Collin Morikawa lying a stroke back. Kim's countryman Byeong Hun An, who welcomed a baby girl earlier this week, was the next best Asian performer following a 71 while debutant Tom Kim carded a disappointing 74.
"I played well and then mostly, my tee balls were pretty good. I'm happy with that. Everything was great, and putting was good too," Si Woo was quoted as saying by the PGA Tour in a report on Thursday.
His strong start was nearly derailed after he made three successive bogeys on his inward nine, which took the shine off a flying start where he negotiated his opening 13 holes in 4-under. But Kim fought back brilliantly with two closing birdies, rolling in a 29-foot birdie on the 8th hole and an easy three-footer on the par-5 9th.
"It was a hard time with three straight bogeys and I am trying to not get emotional. I was focused. I was lucky some long putts dropped and that helps a lot. Birdie the last two, I'm happy about that," said Kim.
"This is one of my favourite tournaments. I didn't want to mess things up so I kept focussing. This is the most important week of the year. I was trying hard out there."
A four-time TOUR winner, Kim made history by becoming the youngest PLAYERS champion in 2017. He had opened with a 69 as well six years ago and is hoping for history to repeat itself.
"It always feels great coming back," said Kim, who won the Sony Open in Hawaii in January. "This was my career second win here, the fifth major. It's like my home course. Everything feels great now, everything feels comfortable. Pretty much have full confidence this week."
Compatriot An was disappointed to bogey his last hole for a 71.
"It was very sloppy. I didn't hit it as good as I wanted. It's weird as I thought I was hitting it great. I feel like it should be a 2 or 3 under round," said the 31-year-old, who played his way back onto the PGA TOUR through the Korn Ferry Tour last season.
"It sucks to miss this last year. I like playing on this course. I played it a lot in junior golf and played the Junior PLAYERS Championship a few times. I think this course suits my eye and I hit a lot of good shots out here."
World No. 1 Jon Rahm opened with a 71 while second-ranked Scottie Scheffler shot a 68. The third player in their group, 2019 PLAYERS champion and reigning FedExCup No. 1 Rory McIlroy carded a 76.