19 March 2021: The PGA National isn’t a course that lends itself to adulation, but even she may have looked at Matt Jones with envy welling up its eyes on Thursday. Jones tied the course record 61 to secure the largest opening round lead at The Honda Classic since 1987. Russell Henley stoked some memories with a 64, the same as he shot in the opening round when he won the title in 2014. Anirban Lahiri endured a couple of bogeys and a double as he worked his way to a 72.
Steve Stricker turned the clock back; the 54-year-old shot 66 to tie for fifth while C.T. Pan and Sungjae Im settled in after him with scores of 67 and 68 respectively.
Anirban had another choppy round, mixing the good with the bad. Both his driving accuracy and greens in regulation dipped under 60% as he played with enormous patience to try and stay even with the course on a windy day. Starting on the tenth, Anirban went off course with his second shot on the 11th and took a double bogey. He slipped to 3-over at the 17th hole before mounting an effort to rescue his card.
The 33-year-old looked set to recover well when he made a birdie on the 18th and added another on the par-5 third hole. But an errant tee shot on the par-3 fifth veered right of the green complex and a two-putt after chipping to the green meant that he had to stay content with a 72. He will need to contend with the blade when he gets going in the second round on Friday.
Jones put meat on the card with four straight birdies from the second. He also finished with a flourish, posting a hattrick of birdies from the 16th to score the lowest round of his PGA TOUR career, surpassing the 62 he posted in the final round of the Wyndham Championship, where he finished T5 in 2013. His only victory on the circuit came a year later when he won the Houston Open. Jones was also the lone card without a blemish on a challenging day for most golfers.
The 61 ties the low score at the tournament, also made by Brian Harman during the second round in 2012. Jones enjoys a three-stroke advantage over Aaron Wise and Russell Henley, the largest margin after the opening round since Mike Sullivan’s four stroke margin in 1987. Jones will look to try and sustain his advantage as he seeks to improve on the T4 in Bermuda Championship, T8 in The Genesis Invitational, his two best results this season.
“That’s an incredible round of golf,” reflected Lee Westwood, speaking of the round by Jones. “Could be the round of the year, 61 around here, when it’s flat calm, impressive. But when there’s a 15-, 20-mile-an-hour wind blowing, greens are fast, a lot of crosswinds, that’s an incredible round of golf.”
“I play golf for a living,” Jones said. “I mean, I should be able to shoot a good golf score occasionally. It doesn’t happen as much as I want. But yes, I’m very happy with it. I was very calm, I was very relaxed out there. I’m normally a bit more amped-up and hyped-up and I had a different goal this week, to be a little more calm than normally and walk slower.”
“Whatever Matt Jones is doing, I want to see it because 61 out there is incredible,” said Shane Lowry, after posting 67 in his opening round. “That’s just incredible.”
Aaron Wise also had a solid opening round, starting with three straight birdies as he posted a solid 6-under 64. Russell Henley matched the score to end the day with a share of second place.
Cameron Davis was one of 14 players to eagle the par-5 18th hole, ending the day with four birdies in his last six holes for a 66. Joseph Bramlett also birdied his last three holes to open with a 66. Lee Westwood showed no signs of easing up. He is on a hot streak having earned runner-up finishes in the Arnold Palmer Invitational and The Players Championship. The Englishman made an even 70 on Thursday.
Sungjae Im could bargain for a piece of exclusive silver if he can try and defend his title this week. No one has done that at the Honda Classic, except Jack Nicklaus in 1978. Luke Donald spent a miserable nine strokes navigating the par-3 17th hole, accounting for his 76 and setting the mark for the highest score on the hole in tournament history. His misery did not last long enough though as Brian Stuard took the honours away with an eleven stroke ordeal later in the day.
Rickie Fowler also shot an even 70 with Phil Mickelson shooting a 71.
Matt Jones 61 (-9)
Aaron Wise 64 (-6)
Russell Henley 64 (-6)
Leading Asian Scores
C.T. Pan 68 (-3, T9)
Sungjae Im 68 (-2, T15)
Kiradech Aphibarnrat 70 (E, T43)
Satoshi Kodaira 70 (E, T43)
Xinjun Zhang 71 (+1, T63)
Anirban Lahiri 72 (+2, T82)
Byeong Hun An 72 (+2, T82)