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Golf: Lee6 in lead, but Korda gets start she wanted

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LPGA Tour Golf

Nelly Korda hits from the 18th tee during the first round of the CME Group Tour Championship in Naples, Fla. on Thursday.

NAPLES, Fla. — On a course she didn't expect, Nelly Korda delivered the round she needed with a 6-under 66 that left her two shots out of the lead Thursday and gave her a good start toward winning LPGA Tour player of the year.

The $1.5 million prize for winning the CME Group Tour Championship is in range, too.

Former U.S. Women's Open champion Jeongeun Lee6 didn't make a birdie on rain-softened Tiburon Golf Club until the sixth hole, and then she didn't stop. She finished with three straight birdies for an 8-under 64.

Lee6 had a one-shot lead over four players, including past Tiburon winner Sei Young Kim. Scoring was so low that 18 players were at 67 or better.

The 60 players who qualified for the season finale have the same chance to win the $1.5 million prize, the largest in women's golf, regardless of their standing in the Race to CME Globe.

The more compelling race is the points-based award for LPGA player of the year, which is down to Korda and Jin Young Ko, each with four victories. Korda has a 10-point lead, meaning Ko would have to be runner-up to have a chance.

The South Korean star has some catching up to do after a 69 left her in a tie for 25th, especially with Korda looking as sharp as she has for so much of the year.

“I gave myself some good looks inside 10 feet,” Korda said. “Two ‘oopsies’ with three-putts, but I think I hit the majority of the greens and gave myself some really good looks. ... Hopefully, I can carry it into the next three days.”

Hannah Green of Australia, who already picked up $1 million this week for winning the Aon Risk-Reward Challenge bonus program, took a step toward even more cash by joining Korda in the group at 66, along with U.S. Women's Open champion Yuka Saso.

Ko and Korda played in the final group, based on Race to CME Globe standings, and the South Korean star got off to a slow start. Her wedge to a back pin on the par-5 opening hole was too strong and went over the back, she putted up the slope and badly missed a 4-foot par putt. She rallied with two birdies on her last three holes.

Korda also started somewhat slowly considering the conditions, opening with a 7-foot birdie putt on the par 5 and then settling for medium-length chances even with short irons.

By then, several players already were at 5 under. That didn't surprise Korda given the nature of the course. The players dodged the worst of the weather, but Korda couldn't help but notice a number of tees moved forward based on the forecast.

“I was pretty surprised seeing a lot of tee boxes up,” Korda said. “I would love to know how far we were playing it today because I think they were anticipating a lot of rain. All of us were. But it was playing pretty short, and I think a lot of the girls could have short clubs in and be more aggressive on these greens.”

She finally joined in with birdies with a shot into 7 feet for birdie on No. 9, and then a wedge to 4 feet pin-high on No. 10 and another wedge to 8 feet behind the hole on the 11th.

But then, it was like for everyone.

Mina Harigae chipped in for eagle on the par-5 17th and then nearly made a hole-in-one on the par-3 eighth toward the end of her round. She was in the group at 65, along with Celine Boutier and Jennifer Kupcho.

Lexi Thompson, coming off bogey-bogey finish that led to a playoff loss, looked better over the short putts and closed with two birdies in her last three holes for a 67.

Only five of the 60 players at Tiburon shot over par.

Korda doesn't get distracted by much, and that includes a chance to be player of the year. She knows what's at stake. She was reminded again playing alongside Ko. And then she just went about her business, as always.

“I'm sure you guys are tired of hearing it, but I honestly don’t think about it. When I say it, I honestly try not to think about it,” she said. “I don't really look at the rankings like that. If you want to know my honest opinion, I look at the money list and that's all I look at.”

Otherwise, everything is in front of her.

“We're here. Everyone has a chance to win $1.5 million. Everyone is playing good golf,” Korda said. “You need everything to be on your side to win, so I just tee it up and I just try to take it one shot at a time. As boring as it sounds, I like that game plan.”

McIlroy leads World Tour Championship

DUBAI, United Arab Emirates — Rory McIlroy is back playing his best golf again, even if it has come too late to win another Race to Dubai title.

Fresh off his 20th career victory on the PGA Tour, the former No. 1 opened birdie-eagle and shot 7-under 65 Thursday for a two-stroke lead after the first round at DP World Tour Championship, the season-ending event on the European Tour.

McIlroy wasn’t one of the six players who arrived at Jumeirah Golf Estates still with a chance of finishing the season as European No. 1. Collin Morikawa, the leader of the Race to Dubai, is looking good for that title after opening with a 68.

McIlroy has an eye on bigger prizes, like a first major since 2014.

“Getting into contention in one major this year isn’t good enough for me — I’ve done way better than that before and I know I can again, especially with how I am playing,” the four-time major winner said. “I’m feeling like I’ve got my golf game back, basically.”

Since the Ryder Cup in September, the eighth-ranked McIlroy has been looking to rediscover the creativity in his game that made him stand out earlier in his career. He showed signs of it in winning the CJ Cup in Las Vegas last month in his last tournament.

There was more evidence on the Earth Course on Thursday, like his hard draw with a fairway wood from 267 yards at the par-5 No. 2 that set up an eagle putt he holed from 13 feet.

And at the last, where he flopped a pitch from the front of the green to within 4 feet, and rolled in the putt for a sixth birdie of his round.

“I’ve always been a very visual player, always seen shots,” said McIlroy, who won the Race to Dubai title in 2012, ’14 and ’15. “People probably see me playing shots again, maybe not quite as much as Bubba Watson, but that’s how I’ve always played golf and seen the game. I just needed to get back to seeing it like that again.”

Morikawa is looking to become the first player from the United States to be the European No. 1 and started the tournament with a narrow lead over another American, Billy Horschel, in the Race to Dubai standings.

They played together in the final group Thursday. While Horschel only made his first birdie at the 17th hole — he celebrated it rather sarcastically, to laughs from the gallery — in a 2-over 74, Morikawa gained four shots in his first seven holes on the back of his renowned iron play.

Morikawa, the British Open champion, played the final 11 holes in even par, though, after bogeys at Nos. 9 and 17, and was in a 10-way tie for fifth place.

The only players above him were McIlroy and three who shared second place after rounds of 67 — Tapio Pulkkanen, Christiaan Bezuidenhout and Joachim B. Hansen, the winner of last week's Dubai Championship.

With top-ranked Jon Rahm — third in the Race to Dubai standings — having withdrawn from the season-ending tournament citing the demands of a long season, Tyrrell Hatton, Min Woo Lee, Matt Fitzpatrick and Paul Casey are the only other players in with a chance to beat Morikawa and Horschel to the title.

Hatton, Casey and Fitzpatrick shot 70, while Lee shot 72.

They all need to win and for Morikawa to drop off the leaderboard.

Munoz leads after career-best 60

ST. SIMONS ISLAND, Ga. — Sebastian Munoz saw the tough weather conditions on the way to the RSM Classic and figured all he could do was keep his head down and make birdies. He wound up with a 10-under 60 to shatter his career round by six shots.

Scoring was so low Thursday at Sea Island that all that got Munoz was a one-shot lead. The Colombian, who won his first PGA Tour event just over a year ago, birdied his final hole at Seaside.

He led by one stroke over Sea Island member Zach Johnson at Seaside, while three players were one shot behind to par. Past champion Mackenzie Hughes, Chez Reavie and Scott Stallings each had a 9-under 63 on the Plantation course.

Four players were tied at 8 under, led by Canadian Corey Conners (62 at Seaside). His wife, Malory, gave birth last week to their first child, a girl named Reis. Jhonattan Vegas, Talor Gooch and Russell Henley shot 64 at Plantation.

Scoring was so ideal that 33 players shot 66 or lower on the two courses, located just off the Atlantic Ocean, and all but 21 players in the field of 156 broke par. The cumulative score in relation to par at the Seaside Course was 288 under, 42 shots lower than the previous record set in 2018.

The scoring average of 66.308 at the Seaside was a tournament record, and the second-lowest for any round on the PGA Tour since 1983, when the Tour began tracking hole-by-hole data. The record is 66.28 at Indian Wells in the 2003 Bob Hope Chrysler Classic.

Munoz matched Tommy Gainey’s 2012 record for low round at Seaside; Hughes, Stallings and Reavie tied for low round at the Plantation set last year by winner Robert Streb and Bronson Burgoon.

A warm, sunny day that began with just enough light rain to often the already pure greens is expected to morph into more common November weather on the Georgia coast Friday with a drop of about 10 degrees in the temperature and wind forecast to gust as high as 30 mph.

“When you’ve got just absolute pure conditions weather-wise and pure conditions on the golf course — the best I’ve ever seen these two golf courses, period — you know you’ve got to get after it,” said the 45-year-old Johnson, who hit all 18 greens.

“It was a perfect day and we all knew it (low scores) was out there,” added Cameron Smith, who had a 66 at the Seaside.

Munoz, however, was staying in the present for his best round as a professional. He hit 11 fairways and 16 greens, made six birdies on the front nine and punctuated the day with a 12-foot eagle putt at No. 15 and a 10-foot birdie putt at No. 18.

“I felt great yesterday playing the pro-am, basically the same weather for two days, so I knew I was hitting it good,” he said. “I just let it happen.”

And for tomorrow?

“I haven’t really looked at the forecast,” he said. “I don’t know how much it’s going to blow tomorrow or if it’s going to be cold or not, so I’m just kind of here right now and I’ll adjust tomorrow and see what happens.”

Johnson was the only player who had a reasonable shot at sub-60 round. He was 9 under through 15 holes after making a 7-footer for birdie at No. 15 and missed birdie attempts of 10, 20 and 25 feet on the final three holes.

“It hit me (the chance to shoot 59) after I birdied 12 and 13 and I got to 8 under,” Johnson said. “Making birdie on 15, I was like, ‘Well, two more and I’m right there.’ I gave myself looks, pretty good looks and that’s all you can hope for.”

Johnson also had a shot at 59 in the Tour Championship in 2007 until hitting into a bunker on the par-3 18th hole at East Lake and having to settle for par and a 60.

Johnson and playing partners Matt Kuchar (65) and Joel Dahmen (65) didn’t make a bogey.

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