Recap of the day
Morning session: With winds light as forecasted, birdies were up for grabs and Jhonattan Vegas stole the show with six of them in a bogey-free 64 to establish a two-stroke lead over former Open champs Zach Johnson and Ernie Els along with Canada’s Ben Silverman. Triple major winner Brooks Koepka came in with a 67 but not all the fancied runners took advantage, with Gary Woodland and Adam Scott both signing for 2-over 72s.
Afternoon session: The lack of wind continued so the afternoon wave also had the chance to score well although plenty still found water/trouble in the Bear Trap, the feared stretch comprising par 3s at 15 and 17 and the par-4 16th. Not Sam Saunders though. He played it in 2-3-2, that three-birdie stretch helping him to a 68. Lucas Glover and Kyoung-Hoon Lee both had a chance to reel in Vegas after getting to -5 but Glover bogeyed the last while Lee doubled the 15th. Justin Thomas started his defense with an eventful 67 while 2017 champ Rickie Fowler went one lower, his 67 matched by Sergio Garcia.
Revised betting: 5/1 Thomas, 13/2 Fowler, 7/1 Koepka, 11/1 Garcia, 14/1 Vegas, Glover, 16/1 Horschel.
Friday weather forecast
It’s similar to day one with plenty of sunshine and temps rising steadily to a peak of 82 degrees by mid-afternoon. The wind could just get up a little for the afternoon starters but nothing more than 8mph.
Leaders after 18 holes
Jhonattan Vegas (64) – The Venezuelan piped 11 (of 14) fairways and also missed just three GIR in his bogey-free morning lap. He’s scored well at PGA National in the past, also posting a closing 64 when T4 in 2017. Today’s effort secured his fourth R1 lead on the PGA Tour.
Lucas Glover (66) – Not his usual route to a 66, as he hit just 11 greens in the right number while his best SG stat was Putting (had gained 2.82 strokes when walking off). Couldn’t save par from 8 feet at his final hole but that was Glover’s only blemish.
Zach Johnson (66) – PGA National has just two par 5s but ZJ played them in 3-under via eagle at 3 and birdie at 18. Swallowed three bogeys but still recorded his lowest lap here (sixth start). Actually recorded a minus SG: Putting figure but gained 5.5 strokes tee-to-green.
Fate of the favorites
Justin Thomas (68) – Cruised to 4-under but then got caught in the Bear Trap with a water-ball at 15 leading to a double followed by bogey at 16. JT is a fighter though and responded with birdies at the final two holes. Couldn’t stop finding bunkers but limited the damage by going 4-for-5 in Sand Saves.
Rickie Fowler (67) – Rickie wiped out two early birdies, and then some, with a triple at 6 but fought back and a pair of closing red circles at 17 and 18 lifted the 2017 winner into the top ten. Hit 16 greens in regulation.
Brooks Koepka (67) – Hasn’t cracked the top 25 in three starts at PGA National but the local man found it easier going today, handing in his second lowest lap. Swallowed double bogey at 15 after a bogey at 14 and only found 11 greens but kept the birdie count high (six of them) and gained over 2.1 strokes with the putter.
Jhonattan Vegas (64): “Every time I come around this place and don't make a bogey, it's pretty good. Obviously, I felt like I played well today, hit my irons the best I've hit them all year, and I've always liked this golf course. It's kind of one of those courses that I think suits me. You have to hit the ball well and you have to get around really well. And then I made a few putts.”
Zach Johnson (66): “I put myself in position to eliminate big numbers. I think that's the key here, I mean, kind of navigating this place off the tee and into the greens. The fat of the green is typically your best approach shot. I don't care what hole it's on, and I don't care really where the pin is.”
Ernie Els (66): “Anything in red around this course, even in benign conditions, you've got to be happy. I made that mistake on 15 (found water off the tee). I started swinging really nice, especially on the back. I got a little unfortunate here and there on some wayward drives. I've got to work on that a little bit. But otherwise just keep going.”
Ben Silverman (66): “It's like a second home. I've been here since '06, and I'm 31, so it's almost half my life I've been down here really, so I'm used to the weather, I'm used to the Bermuda, the style of course, and I've played this course a ton of times, mini-Tour events plus Q-school.”
Brooks Koepka (67): “I played okay. I thought I putted a lot better. That's what I've been trying to work on. Obviously, it's a lot better being on Bermuda greens, feeling a little more comfortable. But I just made two bad swings there in a row. One of them was obviously a lot worse than the other.”
Road to victory at PGA National
2018 Justin Thomas – R1: 3rd, R2: 7th, R3: 2nd
2017 Rickie Fowler – R1: 5th, R2: 3rd, R3: 1st
2016 Adam Scott – R1: 23rd, R2: 4th, R3: 1st
2015 Padraig Harrington – R1: 3rd, R2: 1st, R3: 2nd
2014 Russell Henley – R1: 2nd, R2: 3rd, R3: 2nd
Notes: It’s often hard to play catch-up on tough courses and that theory fits at PGA National. The key is to get your name on the leaderboard early and hold on. Four of the last five winners were already in the top five after the opening 18 holes and eight of the last 11 were in the top eight after round one. In that period, Adam Scott had the most ground to make up but even he was lurking not too far back, coming from T23 and five in arrears after R1 to win in 2016.
Fate of the 18-hole leaders at PGA National – where did they finish?
2015 Jim Herman – 7th
2014 Rory McIlroy – 2nd
Notes: Similarly, a strong first-round performance can be carried through to a good finish. Eight players have held a piece of the lead after 18 holes between 2014 and 2018 and all but two of those finished in the top seven. Rory McIlroy is the only player to convert a R1 lead at PGA National although Sergio Garcia finished runner-up by a shot in 2016 after sharing top spot on Thursday.
Focus on – Majors link
Three of the last four champions at PGA National are major winners, Justin Thomas adding to the victories of Adam Scott in 2016 and Padraig Harrington in 2015. Rory McIlroy also held off Tiger Woods to win here in 2012. In short, past history at this testing track says picking out major winners is a legitimate fantasy strategy. Okay, Johnny Vegas hasn’t won at the very highest level but check out the rest of the leaderboard. Ernie Els, Zach Johnson and Lucas Glover in tied second, Brooks Koepka and Charl Schwartzel a further shot back. We can even take this angle further. Johnson, Glover and Koepka have all won majors in over-par scores, Els won his three with -4, -5 and -6 while even Thomas had to gut it out to capture the 2017 US PGA with -8. Padraig Harrington, the champ here four years ago, won two majors in 2008 with +3 and -3. The Honda Classic winner finished in single digits under par in five of the last six years. No surprise then that guys who have taken victory in high-scoring majors continue to be a good fit for this course.
Focus on – The new greens
Much of the talk in the build-up was how the new greens would play. They were only resurfaced six months ago and expected to have that extra bounce which is common of new putting surfaces. Here’s some early reaction.
Zach Johnson: “The grain hasn't settled. I think a year from now but specifically two years from now, they're going to be really, really good because of the new type of grass they have. They can monitor the saturation level better, the consistency of it at least, and the grain will be much more consistent. They're good now, don't get me wrong. But you can kind of see that they're not quite settled.”
Ernie Els: “It's more like when I won (2008) now. The greens are firmer. They're still very new. I remember back in '08 the course was very dry and the ball was running and the greens were very firm, and it's kind of similar now, so it's really very important to get the ball in play. I don't think length is going to be a huge factor this week.”
Brooks Koepka: “They're firm, but they're not overly firm. They've cut the rough because the greens are so firm, which is nice. I think if we had this rough up to what it normally is, four inches, it would be very difficult.”
Billy Horschel: “They’re not nearly as quick as they normally are. It’s getting some of the old habits out of your head because the grain’s still new, it’s not laid down perfectly yet.”