PALM BEACH GARDENS, Fla. — A year ago at the Honda Classic, Jhonattan Vegas made seven birdies all week. He’s off to a much better start this time.
Vegas made six birdies and no bogeys on Thursday, shooting a 6-under-par 64 to open a two-stroke lead after the first round. Lucas Glover bogeyed his finishing hole for a 66, leaving him tied with Zach Johnson, Ernie Els and Ben Silverman — who went to college at nearby Florida Atlantic.
“Hit my irons the best I’ve hit them all year, and I’ve always liked this golf course,” Vegas said.
Brooks Koepka, Rickie Fowler and Sergio García were in a large group at 67, and the defending champion, Justin Thomas, shot 68. Thomas played the last eight holes without a 9-iron after it bent when he hit it against a tree.
Also at 68 was Sam Saunders, grandson of Arnold Palmer. Saunders birdied all three holes in the famed Bear Trap stretch at PGA National, the run of holes 15 through 17 where a par 4 is sandwiched by two par 3s that can be treacherous even without much wind.
Vegas made 12 bogeys last year at the Honda, along with three double bogeys and a triple bogeys, wound up beating only one of the 74 finishers and wrapped up the week with a final-round 78.
But on Thursday, he was dialed in — missing only three of 14 fairways and three of the 18 greens, needing only 29 putts to get through the day.
“I felt like I was in control pretty much all day long,” said Vegas, a 34-year-old Venezuelan has three PGA Tour victories: the 2011 Bob Hope Classic and the Canadian Open in 2016 and 2017.
Vegas took advantage on a day to make noise at PGA National, where the wind was atypically calm.
“It was not Honda wind,” said Johnson, who added that the breezes did fluctuate more than forecast. “I don’t think we’re going to get Honda wind until Sunday.”
The 49-year-old Els had no complaints. He has won more than 70 tournaments worldwide, 19 of them on the PGA Tour — the last of those coming in 2012 at the British Open. Getting a 20th on tour, he said, has been a goal for some time.
“Secretly on tour among the players, you know when you win No. 20, you get some benefits,” Els said. “It’s late in my career, but I’ll take any win now.”
Thomas sizzled at the start with three birdies in his first four holes, and he made the turn at 4 under.
That is when his day became eventful. His drive ended up behind a tree on the 10th, and he figured that his 9-iron would snap on the follow-through of his approach shot. It merely bent instead, and the jolt of the impact meant Thomas was going to be spending some time Thursday night with an ice pack on his wrist. He said he did not think it would affect him on Friday.
“Just more of a shock than anything,” Thomas said.
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