Justin Thomas got himself back into the thick of things at the Safeway Open on Friday.
A day after shooting 71 and landing in a tie for 51st place to open the PGA Tour fall season event at Silverado Resort and Spa, Thomas made one of the biggest moves, climbing straight to the top of the early-round leaderboard with a round that featured nine birdies and superb putting on greens that are considered very difficult.
Thomas had just one bogey on his card as he navigated his way to an 8-under-par 64 on the North Course on an overcast, cool day with temperatures in the 60s and swirling winds.
“I got off to such a bad start (Thursday),” he said. “I putted well, just didn’t make anything. The greens were very bumpy and I told myself that I knew I was going to get fresh greens this morning and I just took advantage of it.”
Thomas is one of the top players in the Safeway Open, as he is No. 6 in the Official World Golf Ranking, No. 3 in the FedExCup Ranking, and is a 10-time winner on Tour, highlighted by his victory at the BMW Championship in August at Medinah Country Club in Illinois.
Thomas is tied for third place at the halfway point of the tournament, which has a $6.6 million purse and is presented by Chevron. It’s the third event of the Tour’s 2019-2020 schedule. The winner will receive $1.188 million.
Bryson DeChambeau, a five-time Tour champion who is from Clovis, is the 36-hole leader. He had an 8-under 64 and is at 12-under for the tournament, two shots in front of Dixon’s Nick Watney, who had a 65 and is at 10-under.
Thomas went to 9-under, sharing the lead with Nick Taylor (66), Dylan Frittelli (65), Adam Long (68) among the early finishers.
Thomas is in a five-way tie for third place, with Cameron Champ (68) of Sacramento, Taylor, Frittelli and Long.
“My game is where it needs to be,” Thomas said. “I’m playing plenty well enough to win this tournament, I just need to go execute. I need to tighten some things up here and there. But I drove the ball very well the last two days, and again, my putter feels good in my hands. I need to be a little bit more precise with my irons and my short irons for my standards, I feel like. It’s just about executing and actually doing it.”
Thomas, the 2017 PGA Tour Player of the Year, began his round from the No. 10 tee. He hit 6-of-14 fairways in regulation, 14-of-18 greens, and was 2-of-2 on sand saves. His round required just 23 putts, as he made 131 feet of putts. His group, which also had Jim Furyk and Brandt Snedeker, drew one of the largest galleries.
“I hit a lot of very average to mediocre wedge shots that I was able to capitalize with the putts, so it’s just kind of one of those days I got away with stuff,” said Thomas, who won the FedExCup during the 2017 season when he also had five wins, including the PGA Championship. “I know that you can go low out here. It’s a course that is very short, the ball goes quite a long way with how firm it is. But because of how firm it is, you have to get it in the fairway and really have the correct angles into the greens. I felt like I did a pretty good job of that today.”
His birdies came on Nos. 13, 14, 15, 16, 18, 1, 5, 8 and 9. His only bogey was on the sixth hole, as he missed the fairway right with his drive and his second shot to the green clipped an oak tree and came down in the rough. His third shot rolled off the green, behind the pin.
“I hit a couple loose drives there at the end,” said Thomas. “I felt like I had some opportunities to maybe give myself some more chances the last four holes or so. I just stayed patient.
“I’m playing well. I’m doing all the things I need to do. I need to get a little bit better in a couple spots. I’m just glad that I had a good day today to put myself in a lot better position than I was after (Thursday). The fresh greens this morning was a big difference.
“The hardest part is judging the greens. It’s just kind of about guessing and paying attention to your opponents and the shots they hit in.”
Thomas putted beautifully in the second round. His birdie putts were from 9 feet, 2 inches on No. 13; 5 feet, 1 inch on No. 14; 16 feet on No. 15; 19 feet, 9 inches on No. 16; 13 feet, 1 inch on No. 18; 27 feet, 2 inches on No. 1; 2 feet, 8 inches on No. 5; 9 feet, 2 inches on No. 8; and 8 feet, 11 inches on No. 9.
One of the best shots he hit was the 8-iron from the left rough on the par-5, 538-yard fifth hole. It was his second shot from an upslope, and he landed it on the green from 190 yards.
“It was a jumper lie,” said Thomas. “The hardest part was just getting it online with it that far below my feet and kind of making sure I caught it solid. Being a short iron, I didn’t have any trees in my way. It was hard to hit it on the green, but it wasn’t that hard to make a 4.”
DeChambeau is 11th in the OWGR and won his fifth Tour title during the 2019 season. He had a bogey-free round and had eight birdies. He hit 10-of-14 fairways, 15-of-18 greens and had 26 putts.
Watney has won five times on Tour.
Collin Morikawa, the Golfweek Men’s National Player of the Year and a four-time Division I PING All-American at UC Berkeley, made a surge on the leaderboard by shooting 64 to get to 8-under for the tournament. He is tied for eighth with John Oda.
“The course is playing tough, the greens are getting a lot firmer,” said Morikawa. “Fortunately, I was able to get out there early this morning. The wind was a little calmer. I was able to hit a few more fairways and just able to attack some pins. I had a lot better numbers.”
Morikawa played the Safeway Open on a sponsor’s invitation as a sophomore at Cal in 2016. He missed the 36-hole cut as an amateur after rounds of 74 and 69. He turned professional earlier this year and won the Barracuda Championship in July at Montreux Golf & Country Club in Reno, Nev. His caddie is J.J. Jakovac, a Napa native and 2000 Vintage High School graduate who is in the Chico State Athletic Hall of Fame.
Morikawa had 24 putts and hit 9-of-14 fairways and 14-of-18 greens. He made just over 58 feet of putts.
Francesco Molinari is among four players who are tied for 10th place at 7-under.