News & Opinion

Mark Hubbard, Matthew NeSmith set Phoenix Open pace

Matthew NeSmith at 2021 Waste Management Phoenix Open
Matthew NeSmith, who is seeking his 1st PGA Tour victory, shoots 8-under 63 on Thursday at TPC Scottsdale to share the 1st-round lead in the Waste Management Phoenix Open.

Americans match 8-under 63s as TPC Scottsdale welcomes limited number of spectators for Waste Management Phoenix Open

Mark Hubbard made a mid-round swing adjustment, leading to a late-round rally as he grabbed a share of the lead Thursday in the first round of the PGA Tour’s Waste Management Phoenix Open in Scottsdale, Ariz.

Hubbard birdied five of his final six holes, including the last four in a row at TPC Scottsdale, to cap a career-low 8-under 63 and join fellow American Matthew NeSmith atop the leaderboard (scores).

“You can definitely score coming down the stretch with the par 5s and the drivable par 4,” said Hubbard, who birdied the par-5 13th and 15th holes and then drove the 332-yard 17th and two-putted for birdie.

“That being said, I kind of found a little something in my swing,” he said. “Earlier in the day, I was kind of whipping it a little inside, so I kind of straightened my takeaway a little bit, and that kind of got things in motion, and I putted pretty good all day.”

Hubbard, 31, and in his fifth season on the PGA Tour, is looking for his first victory, in his 120th start. NeSmith, 27, in his second season, also is seeking to break through for his first victory, in his 38th start.

Americans Nate Lashley and Sam Burns shared third place at 7-under 64.

U.S. Ryder Cup captain Steve Stricker birdied two of his last three holes to shoot 65 for fifth place. Stricker, 53, hasn’t won on the PGA Tour since the 2012 Tournament of Champions, his 12th career victory. However, he has won five times on the Champions Tour in the past three years. Stricker was paired with European Ryder Cup captain Padraig Harrington, who shot 71.

Spain’s Jon Rahm, who at No. 2 in the world was the highest-ranked player in the field and the pre-tournament favorite, bogeyed his final hole to shoot 68.

NeSmith enjoyed a comfortable pairing with Scott Brown, a frequent golf buddy from their home course, Palmetto Golf Club in Aiken, S.C.

“We play almost every day together at home,” NeSmith said, “so any time I get to play with him or guys from back home, it really makes it seem a little bit easier.”

NeSmith hit 16 of 18 greens, and on one of the two that he missed, he chipped in for birdie, at the par-4 sixth, his 15th hole after starting on the back nine.

“I lean on my iron play a lot. It's what I do best,” said NeSmith, who started 2021 with two missed cuts before he tied for 48th last week in the Farmers Insurance Open at Torrey Pines. “If I drive it good, I'm usually going to hit my irons pretty well. That's just kind of how I've always been. I'm just trying to keep it in play, keep it in the short grass, give my irons a chance to speak for themselves, and that's usually how I play my best golf.”

Because of COVID-19 restrictions, the Phoenix Open is the first tournament of the year to welcome spectators. At only 5,000 fans per day, the crowd Thursday was much smaller – and not nearly as rowdy – as the throngs of revelers that have made the event synonymous with outdoor partying. Only 2,600 fans were allowed at the par-3 16th stadium hole.

“I probably made the quietest almost-hole-in-one ever on 16,” said NeSmith, who tapped in for birdie on his seventh hole of the day. “I got about six claps there and hit it to 6 inches. It was really nice to have fans again.”

Sign up to receive the Morning Read newsletter, along with Where To Golf Next and The Equipment Insider.