Noren, Simpson tied for Honda Classic lead


PALM BEACH GARDENS, Florida - Alex Noren and Webb Simpson tamed windy conditions at PGA National on Thursday to shoot 4-under rounds of 66 and share the first-round lead at the Honda Classic in Palm Beach Gardens, Fla.

Justin Thomas is in a group of five players at 3-under that also includes Daniel Berger, Morgan Hoffman, Mackenzie Hughes and Louis Oosthuizen. Another shot back are Dominic Bozzelli, Jamie Lovemark, Russell Henley and Ben Crane.

Tiger Woods, who also played during the morning wave, is tied for 21st at even par. That is one shot better than defending champion Rickie Fowler, who carded a pair of birdies and three bogeys in his opening-round 71.

Rory McIlroy was cruising along at even par before coming up short attempting to reach the par-5 18th in two shots. His ball landed in the water and McIlroy dropped into a tie for 56th at 2-over after taking a double bogey.

Playing in consistent winds of 15-20 mph, Noren began his round on the back nine. He was even par through 10 holes before reeling off four birdies over his final eight holes.

"It's a tough day," Noren told the Golf Channel. "It's so tough in the wind, you have to hit the ball so well to hit your targets. But my short game and putting was probably the best it has been for a long time."

The Swede is acclimating to his first year on the PGA Tour and said he planned to play some holes at another golf course in the afternoon to practice the variety of shots he needs to manage his way around PGA National.

"This golf course is kind of an iron paradise, if you got that going," he said.

Simpson turned in an equally impressive round during the afternoon wave. This is his first time playing the Honda Classic since 2011.

"Definitely excited to get a good round under my belt," said Simpson, who made all 14 of his putts from inside 10 feed on Thursday. "Anything under par and day out here is really good."

The fourth-ranked Thomas is the highest-ranked player in the field this week. He acknowledged being tired coming off the West Coast Swing, but posted his lowest career round at PGA National on Thursday. Playing in the group ahead of Woods, Thomas reached 4-under before a bogey on No. 6. He hit 9 of 14 fairways and only 11 of 18 greens, but scrambled well in finishing with only 25 putts on the round.

"I feel a lot more confident in most areas of my game," Thomas said when asked how his game has progressed since missing the cut in his first Honda Classic in 2015. He tied for third the following year before missing the cut again in 2017. "I feel that I can just get it around better, I don't need my best stuff to have a chance to win, it's just about being a bit smarter."

Beginning the tournament on the back nine, Woods reached 2-under with birdies on two of his first four holes. He gave a shot back with a bogey on the 16th hole after hitting his approach into a green-side bunker, making his turn at 1-under 34.

Woods double bogeyed the third hole, one of only two par-5s at PGA National, when he yanked his approach shot left of the green. He was short-sided in a bunker and left his chip shot just short of the putting surface, blading a sand wedge up and missing his bogey putt when he said a gust of wind affected his balance.

Woods rebounded with a birdie on the following hole and closed out his round with five consecutive pars.

"It was just my seventh round (of 2018), so easily it was my best ball-striking day," he said. "I was very pleased I made a lot of the short putts today, because the greens are a little scratchy.

"It was very positive today. It was a tough day out there for all of us, and even par is a good score."

NOTES: Danny Lee withdrew on Thursday due to undisclosed personal reasons. Martin Kaymer and Bud Cauley also withdrew. Cauley tweeted that his wrist began hurting on Wednesday: "gave it a go but it's still hurting. going to get it looked at and worked on," he wrote. Kaymer also tweeted that he was forced to withdraw due to a right wrist injury. He said it was the first time in his professional career that he has been forced to withdraw due to injury.