Bubba Watson chips out of the sand on the 18th hole during the first round of the Memorial Tournament at Muirfield Village Golf Club. (USA TODAY Sports: Joe Maiorana)
Masters champion Bubba Watson, making the most of ideal scoring conditions, birdied four of his last five holes to surge into an early share of the lead in Thursday’s opening round of the Memorial Tournament in Dublin, Ohio.
The American world number five, one of seven players in the top 10 competing this week at Muirfield Village Golf Club, sank a 13-foot putt on his final hole, the par-four ninth, to card a six-under-par 66.
That left Watson in a three-way tie at the top with compatriot Chris Kirk and Englishman Paul Casey, who mixed an eagle with six birdies and two bogeys.
Two more Americans, Keegan Bradley and Michael Thompson, opened with 67s but defending champion Matt Kuchar, the world number four, made an erratic start with a 74 that included two double-bogeys.
Watson, who has always enjoyed competing at leafy Muirfield Village despite never before having produced a good finish at the event, was delighted with his opening round on a rain-softened course with barely a breath of wind.
“They are generous fairways around here so I can keep the ball somewhat in play,” he told Golf Channel after ending his round with birdies at the fifth, seventh, eighth and ninth.
“If I hit my driver well, it’s shorter irons into some of the par-fours and the par-fives are reachable if you hit decent tee shots. And today I played the par-threes pretty good.
“I am making a few putts here and there and birdied the last few holes. Making those key putts coming down the stretch obviously makes a good score.”
Watson’s best finish at the Memorial has been a tie for 23rd on two occasions but the left-hander has produced excellent form on the PGA Tour so far this season with six top-10s in 10 starts, including a second Masters victory.
Casey, whose only victory on the U.S. circuit came at the 2009 Houston Open, was also in an upbeat mood after his first competitive round at Muirfield Village since 2009.
“I’m loving being back,” Casey said. “There was no water on 16 the last time I played, and 18 was a three-iron off the tee.
“But apart from that, it’s roughly the same. That was a joy today. I thought the golf course (was) in impeccable shape. It’s beautifully set up. I’m very happy with a six under.”
South African Ernie Els opened with a 70 while U.S. Open champion Justin Rose of England, who won the 2010 Memorial title, returned a 73.
Australian Adam Scott, who clinched the Crowne Plaza Invitational on Sunday and is making his second consecutive appearance on the PGA Tour since replacing Tiger Woods as world number one, was among the late starters on Thursday.
Scott has been grouped for the first two rounds with his compatriot Jason Day and Northern Ireland’s Rory McIlroy, who won the European Tour’s flagship BMW PGA Championship at Wentworth last week.