ATLANTA — If two-time major champion Collin Morikawa was trying to make a final impression on U.S. Ryder Cup captain Zach Johnson in this week’s Tour Championship, he took a big first step in Thursday’s opening round at East Lake Golf Club.
Morikawa, among a handful of players who are under consideration for Johnson’s six captains picks that will be announced Tuesday, carded a 9-under 61 with seven birdies and an eagle to grab a share of the 18-hole lead at 10 under in the staggered-scoring format.
Another U.S. Ryder Cup hopeful, Keegan Bradley, posted a 7-under 63 to move to 10 under. Norway’s Viktor Hovland, who won last week’s BMW Championship near Chicago, also had a share of the first-round lead with a 2-under 68 over 18 holes.
World No. 1 golfer Scottie Scheffler was 1 stroke back at 9 under. Adam Schenk and Russell Henley were 8 under.
There were nine players within 3 shots of the leaders, the most through 18 holes at the Tour Championship since the starting-strokes format began in 2019.
Scheffler started the day 2 strokes in front of the rest of the field after piling up the most FedEx Cup points this season. After starting the day at 10 under, Scheffler had birdies on three of his first six holes to open up a 5-stroke lead.
But then Scheffler carded bogeys on Nos. 8, 11 and 12. He made a triple-bogey 6 on the par-3 15th after hitting his tee shot into the water. He missed a 3½-foot putt for double bogey. It was Scheffler’s first triple-bogey on a par 3 this season; he has played more than 800 par 3s, according to research by ESPN Stats & Information.
Scheffler lost 2.833 strokes to the field, his worst round of the season, and dropped 3.229 in putting. He needed 33 putts.
“I’m obviously pretty frustrated with how I played today,” Scheffler said. “I got off to a pretty good start, and then I had a few three-putts today, which definitely is frustrating. Then I had the bad swing there on the par-3, 15.”
It was the second straight disappointing round for Scheffler at East Lake. After starting the 2022 Tour Championship as the No. 1 seed, he took a 6-shot lead over Rory McIlroy and Xander Schauffele into the final round. Scheffler could manage only a 3-over 73 over the final 18 holes and lost to McIlroy by a stroke.
McIlroy tweaked his back on Tuesday and battled through the opening round Thursday. He was even par in the first 18 holes and tied for seventh at 7 under overall.
Morikawa came within 1 stroke of tying Johnson’s East Lake course record of 10-under 60 in the third round of the 2007 Tour Championship, which Tiger Woods won by 8 strokes. It was the lowest round of Morikawa’s PGA Tour career.
“It feels great,” Morikawa said. “Shoot, no better time, I guess, [than] in our Tour Championship to show up and start playing some golf. But just really I think for the next three days just have that control of the golf ball, keep hitting it pin high, giving myself chances.”
Morikawa led the field in strokes gained: approach the green (3.704) and strokes gained: total (7.167).
After about 12 or 13 holes on Thursday, Morikawa joked to his caddie, Jonathan “JJ” Jakovac, that he hadn’t hit that many shots pin high in four rounds of a tournament in quite a while.
“It’s been another frustrating and up-and-down year, but [Jakovac] looked at me on Sunday last week and just said, ‘Look, let’s just go and have fun,’” Morikawa said. “It’s not easy to make it here. I can’t take it for granted that I’m here again. I had to grind my butt off to get here again, play well in playoffs, [and] have a couple finishes. Like, it’s not easy. There’s a reason why only 30 guys make it.”
It has been a trying couple of seasons for Morikawa, who hasn’t won on the PGA Tour since claiming his second major at the Open Championship at Royal St. George’s Golf Club in Sandwich, England, in July 2021. Morikawa finished 24th in the FedEx Cup points standings and fell to No. 20 in the world rankings.
The five-time PGA Tour winner was 10th in Ryder Cup points; the top six automatically qualified for the team. Along with Bradley and Morikawa, LIV Golf League star Brooks Koepka, Jordan Spieth, Cameron Young, Sam Burns, Rickie Fowler, Justin Thomas and Lucas Glover are believed to be under consideration.
Burns had birdies on two of his last four holes to post a 4-under 66 in the first round. Fowler (2 under) and Spieth (1 under) were also under par in the first round, while Glover posted a 2 over 72.
Morikawa went 3-0-1 as a Ryder Cup rookie at Whistling Straits in Wisconsin in September 2021, tallying 3½ points for the Americans. He said he hadn’t discussed the Ryder Cup team with Johnson since the Rocket Mortgage Classic in Detroit in early July.
“Look, I had two years to get myself in that top six and we didn’t do it,” Morikawa said. “So, it is what it is. I was still grinding out there. We still ended up roughly in that zone of hopefully a captain’s pick. Hopefully, my record speaks for itself. Hopefully, the golf speaks for itself today.
“I feel good and at the end of the day, I want to win this tournament. I really do. It’s been too long. I want to find a way to win. Today definitely helped that.”