KUALA LUMPUR • Two-time defending champion Justin Thomas got off to a shaky start at golf's CIMB Classic yesterday with a two-under 70, which left him languishing at the back of the pack.
Australian Cameron Smith, ranked 151st in the world, took the lead with a sparkling eight-under 64.
Thomas was tied for 23rd and the other favourites also struggled at the PGA Tour event in Malaysia, with both Japan's Hideki Matsuyama (70) and India's Anirban Lahiri (67) trailing the leaders.
Thomas is coming off the back of a breakthrough season during which he racked up five wins, including a maiden Major victory at the PGA Championship, and was named the 2017 PGA Tour Player of the Year.
The world No. 4 is hoping for a third consecutive win in the tournament, and opened his campaign with three birdies in the first nine holes at TPC Kuala Lumpur.
But the American, who started on the 10th hole, faltered after his promising start and hit three bogeys, leaving him to play catch-up against Smith.
It was also Thomas' second-worst round in his CIMB Classic career - his only poorer one was a 71 in the third round last year.
USING THE SAME STRATEGY
Same plan tomorrow. Really smart off the tee and just try and get in the fairway and then really aggressive into the greens and obviously hole some putts.
CAMERON SMITH, first-round leader at the CIMB Classic, on his game plan for today.
Smith earned eight birdies to become the solo overnight leader.
"It was pretty simple really, hit a lot of good shots today and made a lot of good putts," he said.
"Same plan tomorrow. Really smart off the tee and just try and get in the fairway and then really aggressive into the greens and obviously hole some putts."
One shot behind Smith are Thailand's Poom Saksansin, American Keegan Bradley and freshly crowned Tour Championship winner Xander Schauffele, also from the United States.
Matsuyama, who passed up the chance to defend his Japan Open title to play in Malaysia this week, is a spot above Thomas in the world rankings and matched his score yesterday after mixing four birdies with two bogeys.
India's Lahiri, tied eighth with a 67, said he was "a little disappointed".
"Obviously got off to a red-hot start and then couldn't capitalise on the (higher) scoring part of the golf course," he said.
Kevin Na nailed a 45-foot putt for a birdie at the 15th hole and then holed an iron for an eagle at No. 16 but bogeyed the last to drop to a share of fifth with fellow Americans Gary Woodland and Pat Perez after carding a 66.
Davis Love also threatened the grip of the twentysomethings at the top of the leaderboard with five straight birdies from the second hole. But the 53-year-old stumbled on the back nine and finished tied with Lahiri and four others after a 67.
The US$7 million (S$9.5 million) CIMB Classic is jointly sanctioned by the Asian Tour and PGA Tour.
The golfers could be in for a tough day today, with thunderstorms set to descend on Kuala Lumpur.
Thomas may not have had the best of starts, but the 24-year-old should not be written off after erasing a four-shot deficit in the final round to retain his title last year.
AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE, REUTERS
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