Courtesy of Napa Valley Register, Marty James
The leaderboard during Thursday’s first round of the Safeway Open was awash in red numbers throughout the day, reflecting the low scoring turned in by so many players on the North Course at Silverado Resort and Spa.
There is Russell Knox, who fashioned a 9-under-par 63 to take the lead. His bogey-free round featured an eagle and seven birdies.
There is Brendan Steele, a two-time champion of the event, who is two shots off the lead following a 7-under 65.
There are four players at 66.
There are five players at 67.
There are six players at 68.
They are all chasing Knox, who joined the PGA Tour in 2012.
“I played good today, obviously,” said Knox, who is originally from Inverness, Scotland. “It was a day where a lot of good things happened and definitely nice to get off to a good start. You know, I’ve struggled in first rounds for so long I feel like, so one of my main goals this season was to get off to a better start. I didn’t quite expect this, but nice to shoot a good score.”
How about a great score and a great start by Knox to begin the Safeway Open, the season-opening event during the PGA Tour’s 2020-21 schedule. It’s a $6.6 million tournament, presented by Chevron, and continues through Sunday. It’s the first of 50 official FedExCup tournaments bridging two years in the wrap-around schedule.
Knox’s score on the par-72, 7,166-yard Silverado North Course – re-designed in 2011 by Johnny Miller, a World Golf Hall of Fame member and 25-time PGA Tour champion – is just two shots off the tournament course record of 61 that is held by seven players; the most recent being Ricky Barnes in the second round in 2019. The course presents difficulties with its deep rough, narrow fairways, and greens that have undulations and slope.
Knox went to work on his game after missing the FedExCup Playoffs. He worked with his coach, Mark McCann, preparing for the Napa stop on the Tour.
“Missing the FedExCup Playoffs was extremely disappointing for me,” he said. “I mean, I deserved to not make it. I’ve worked as hard as I ever have the last two weeks before this event. So it’s really nice to see something good happen immediately. I definitely feel like my game is heading in the right direction.”
Knox, who has two career wins, turned in some very impressive numbers during his round: an average of 284 yards for driving distance, 11 of 14 fairways hit in regulation, 14 of 18 greens hit in regulation, 24 putts, 4-for-4 in scrambling.
“I got away from kind of my DNA, I guess, of what’s made me be able to play on the PGA Tour,” said Knox. “I’ve just tried to tighten it up and get back to hitting it straight, hitting on the fairways and then allowing my iron game to take over, which has fortunately always been kind of there for me. Then if I make a few putts, then I can have a good round. Like I said, I’ve got to get back to playing my type of golf.
“For me, I’ve just got to get it in play and take it from there. So I feel like I’ve done a very good job practicing at home and then also obviously today. Like I said, when I’ve ever played my best golf, I get the ball in play off the tee and unfortunately for a while I was hitting too many foul balls. It’s much better now.
“After three weeks off, you never quite know how you’re going to come out of the gates. Obviously, whatever happens the rest of the week, I managed to shoot a great first round, which is nice. You feel like you’re in the tournament.”
Knox is in his ninth year on the Tour and has two wins, both coming in 2016 – World Golf Championships-HSBC Champions, Travelers Championship.
The only other time he had the lead in the first round was back in 2013 at the AT&T Pebble Beach Pro-Am, when he was the co-leader and finished 28th.
Last season, he had five Top-25 finishes in 22 starts with 11 made cuts, and was No. 127 in the FedExCup standings. He failed to advance to the FedExCup Playoffs after six straight appearances.
“I don’t see myself as a golfer who should be missing the Playoffs, but I just had a weird year, a weird couple years, and got into a little funk,” said Knox. “It’s hard. You’ve got to fight out of it and hopefully we’re going in the right direction.”
Knox had it going on in Round 1, as he eagled the par-5, 550-yard fifth hole when he hit driver and 3-hybrid, leading to the one-putt from 14 feet, 1 inch.
He had birdies on Nos. 4, 6 and 9 on the front nine. He had birdies on Nos. 10, 12, 16 and 18 on the back nine.
One of his best shots of the day came on the par-4, 454-yard 13th hole. After missing the fairway right, he hit a laser-like shot from the rough, under a Redwood tree, just short of the green. He got up and down to save par.
“I definitely got a couple of good breaks today, but it’s nice to hole putts,” said Knox. “There’s a lot of moisture in the air today compared to the last couple days, which obviously made it a little bit easier in attacking the course. I’m glad we got to play. After (Wednesday), we were just hoping not to be like that again.”
There were very smoky and hazy skies on Wednesday, causing an unusual darkness in the middle of the day, along with cooler temperatures after a brutal heat wave that continued into Monday. The lights at the driving range were turned on.
Thursday’s first round was delayed one hour due to fog and instead of starting at 7 a.m., began at 8 a.m. But conditions were far better than the day before. The temperature at 11 a.m. was at 63, and it went up to 72 in the 3 p.m. hour.
Steele has familiarity with Silverado’s North Course, having won Safeway Open titles here in 2016 and 2017. Steele has the 72-hole tournament scoring record of 18-under 270, set in 2016.
“I really have a good sense of where you can be aggressive out here, where you need to be conservative, where you can miss it to different pins,” he said. “I just kind of understood it right away, which is nice. And being from California, I’m comfortable on the greens.
“I always like the clean slate, too, getting back to zero. It just feels like there’s less pressure. It’s a little more freedom because everybody’s just getting their feet wet on a new season even though we just ended a few days ago.”
Steele started his round from the 10th tee and made seven birdies. He birdied Nos. 10, 14, 16, 18, 5, 6 and 9.
“There was very little stress out there today, which is always good,” said Steele, who hit 11 of 14 fairways and 15 of 18 greens, with 26 putts. He was 3 of 3 in scrambling, 2 of 2 on sand saves, and averaged 288.8 yards in driving distance.
Steele finished the 2019-20 season at No. 47 in the FedExCup standings. He had three Top-10 finishes.
The extended weather forecast, according to the Tour: “Low-level clouds, patchy fog or mist will be possible through 9-10 a.m. Friday, otherwise expect dry conditions with a canopy of smoke aloft bringing hazy, filtered sunshine. Friday’s air quality is forecast to become unhealthy for sensitive groups, while the weekend is forecast to have ‘moderate’ air quality. Expecting a slow, gradual improvement to air quality and visibility this weekend, but smoky, hazy skies are likely to remain in place due on ongoing wildfires. Expect afternoon high temperatures in the mid to upper 70s Friday through the weekend, with overnight lows in the mid-50s.
The Safeway Open features some of the biggest names in golf, including Phil Mickelson, Sergio Garcia, Jordan Spieth and Shane Lowry. The 156-player field also has Jim Furyk, Brandt Snedeker, Matt Kuchar, Jason Dufner, Jimmy Walker, Charl Schwartzel, Keegan Bradley, Maverick McNealy and Harold Varner III.
Miller is the tournament host.
Mickelson, a World Golf Hall of Fame member who has won five majors and is a 44-time winner on the Tour, opened with a 71.
“I let a lot of shots go today, which was disappointing,” he said. “I didn’t drive it well on the front nine, for sure. For me to shoot under par, it’s actually a mini victory in that I didn’t shoot myself out of the tournament. I’ve got to go shoot 7-, 8-under par tomorrow to get in it for the weekend, but it’s very doable. I’ve actually have been playing well enough to do it, but not today. The putter feels good even though I didn’t make some that I could have, but I felt like it was a day that I fought to stay in it when I didn’t have it. I’ll put a little work in and see if I can go shoot a low one tomorrow and get right back in it.”
Lowry, who won The Open Championship last year at Royal Portrush Golf Club in County Antrim, Northern Ireland, opened with a 68.
“I got off to a bit of a slow start as well, but it was nice to finish like that,” said Lowry, who is from Clara, County Offaly, Ireland. “I grinded out well. I didn’t feel like I played my best.”