SCOTTSDALE, Ariz. (AP) — Sahith Theegala crashed golf’s biggest party.
Playing in the last group off the 10th tee Thursday in his first WM Phoenix Open start, Theegala was 7 under with two holes left when the round was suspended because of darkness. K.H. Lee was second after a 6-under 65.
“The big key for me, like always in my game, is just putting my driver in the fairway,“ Theegala said. ”I was able to do that early and often.”
The 24-year-old former Pepperdine star got into the event on a sponsor exemption.
“Super strong field, probably the strongest field I played in so far this year,“ Theegala said. ”I just figured it was like another free-roll opportunity, might as well take advantage of it and obviously super thankful that I got in.”
The fans were back in full force on an 80-degree day at firm and fast TPC Scottsdale, with well over 100,000 on hand and a lot more expected Friday and Saturday. Last year, daily attendance was limited to 5,000 because of the COVID-19 pandemic.
“I always love the fans here,” said defending champion Brooks Koepka, two strokes back after a 66. “I like playing in front of a lot of people. They cheer you when you hit a good one and boo you when you hit a bad one, which is what you deserve.”
Theegala opened with a 16-foot birdie putt on No. 10 and made four straight birdies on Nos. 13-16, holing a 15-footer from the fringe on the stadium par-3 16th.
“I got off to a pretty hot start,“ Theegala said. ”It was nice to see one go in on the first hole. That always kind of sets the tone.”
The PGA Tour rookie birdied the par-3 third and ran in a 30-footer on par-3 fourth. He will resume play Friday morning with a 16-foot par putt on the par-4 eighth.
“I started hitting my driver a little squirrely at the end, so this is a welcome stop, honestly,” Theegala said.
Abbotsford, B.C.’s Adam Hadwin, who lives in Scottsdale, and Harry Higgs matched Koepka, also the 2015 winner, at 66. Hadwin’s card included five birdies and zero bogeys on his back nine. Monday qualifier Ben Silerveman is the next highest Canadian at 1 under through 16 holes. Scott Stallings also was 5 under with a hole left. Top-ranked Jon Rahm topped the group at 67.
Lee tied for second last year, then went on to win the Byron Nelson three months later for his first PGA Tour title.
“Great start today, but I have a long way to go,” Lee said.
Lee played a three-hole stretch in 4 under on his back nine, hitting to 4 feet on the par-4 12th, chipping in for eagle on the par-5 third and hitting to 3 feet on the par-3 fourth. The South Korean player closed with a 13-footer for birdie on No. 9.
Rahm had four birdies in a bogey-free round, failing to birdie any of the three par-5 holes and three-putting the short par-4 17th. The Spaniard starred at Arizona State and lives a few miles from the course.
“I’ve been able to win the Spanish Open twice and I carry that with a lot of honor,” Rahm said. “And this is kind of essentially home away from home.”
FedEx Cup champion Patrick Cantlay also was at 67 with Justin Thomas, Xander Schauffele, Louis Oosthuizen, Charley Hoffman, Alex Noren, Bubba Watson, Stewart Cink, Kevin Kisner and Billy Horschel. Cantlay is making his first appearance in the event.
Hideki Matsuyama shot a 68 in his first round since winning the Sony Open last month in Hawaii. The Masters champion won in Scottsdale in 2016 and 2017.
Hadwin had five birdies in a late six-hole stretch, capped by 20-footers on 16 and 17.
After a breezy periods in the morning, it was mostly calm in the afternoon, with the firm greens making it difficult to hit shots close.
“They were definitely firmer for a Thursday,” Higgs said after his afternoon round. “They don’t have weather here, so this place gets concrete come Saturday, Sunday.”
Graeme McDowell also was at 68 after his first round in the event since 2006.
“This is a quite the show here, quite the party and quite the atmosphere,” McDowell said. “The golf course is sensational. Not sure I’ve seen a better-conditioned golf course than this one and it’s playing firm and fast, which kind of suits my game a little bit.”
DIVOTS: Jordan Spieth had a double bogey on No. 17 in a 70. Second last week at Pebble Beach, he tied for fourth behind Koepka last year. … Third-ranked Viktor Hovland shot 72. … Tom Hoge, the Pebble Beach winner Sunday for his first tour title, shot 69. … Harold Varner III, coming off a winning 90-foot eagle putt last week in the Asian Tour’s Saudi International, had a 75. … Charles Howell III shot 75 in his 600th PGA Tour start. He had a quadruple-bogey 8 on No. 5.