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Thomas, English share early lead

Sentry Tournament of Champions

Harris English acknowledges the crowd’s applause after sinking a birdie putt on the Kapalua Plantation Course’s 18th hole during the first round of the Sentry Tournament of Champions on Thursday. The Maui News / MATTHEW THAYER photos

KAPALUA — Harris English has only been to the Sentry Tournament of Champions once, in 2014 when he finished tied for 11th with a best round of 69.

Justin Thomas has been here six years in a row and has won twice, including last year.

In Thursday’s first round of the 2021 event, each player fired an 8-under-par 65 to share a two-shot lead in front of six players tied at 67.

“It was a good day. It was a good opening round. It was solid. I didn’t do anything great, didn’t do anything bad, just kind of made my way around the course,” Thomas said. “I mean, the conditions were about as good as you could get them. I mean, not much wind and soft greens, so I was glad to take advantage.”

In a loaded field that includes eight of the top-10 players in the world, it was quite a show for the soft-spoken Harris, a 31-year-old from Georgia who is ranked 29th coming into this week.

Justin Thomas follows through on his tee shot on the first hole.

English qualified for this event with a tie for 12th in the final FedEx Cup standings after the Tour Championship. He has been consistent throughout his career, making the top 30 in the FedEx Cup standings eight times in nine years.

He made seven birdies, one bogey and an eagle 3 with a chip-in from 59 feet on the par-5 ninth Thursday.

“I saw the scores last year,” English said. “I hadn’t been here since 2014 and saw Xander (Schauffele) shoot 11 under, I think, the last round and kind of know (how) the scores are out here. The wind wasn’t pumping like it normally does out here and got on a roll, hit the ball really well. I think I only missed maybe two or three greens out there and it was fun to make that many birdies. And that chip-in at nine was a kind of icing on the cake.”

English hasn’t won since the 2014 OHL Classic at Mayakoba, but he is a fan of this event.

“I mean, I’ve watched this tournament a lot. I guess the thing of coming here once and not being here for seven years is you really miss it and you really are gunning to get back here,” English said. “I watched this tournament every single year, so I kind of know how these shots play. I know how to play this course.

Ryan Palmer chips to the 18th green during the first round of the Sentry Tournament of Champions on Thursday at the Kapalua Plantation Course.

“I know it’s out there — you drive the ball well out here, you’re going to have a lot of short irons, a lot of wedges, and you just got to get your putting dialed in. I feel like I did that today, gave myself a lot of chances and rolled in a couple longer putts.”

Thomas is ranked No. 3 in the world and has won more than $3.19 million here with the help of wins in 2020 and 2017.

He had eight birdies in a bogey-free round. He bettered his scoring average here on Thursday — he entered with a 69.55 average in 20 rounds. It was his best opening round here ever, bettering the 67 he has shot in three previous openers.

“It’s the thing about this course is you need to have a solid first round, I mean, that’s for sure,” Thomas said. “I think this is a tough place to play way from behind, if you go shoot even or 1 under in the first round it’s hard to post consecutive rounds of 7, 8, 9 under, no matter where you play.

“But it is nice to do that, I understand that there’s a lot of golf and a lot of really good players within four, five of the lead and 54 holes left. So I just need to go out and do a little bit more of what I did today and hopefully a little bit better in some areas.”

Justin Thomas lines up an eagle putt on the 18th hole. He made birdie to tie for the first-round lead.

The logjam at 6 under included Robert Streb, Sergio Garcia, Nick Taylor, Ryan Palmer, Sungjae Im and Patrick Reed.

Palmer was 3-over par after a double bogey on No. 4. He followed that with an eagle on the fifth and a birdie on six.

“Yeah, obviously finished with a good score but that first — start was a little sketchy, a little rough, a few quick swings with the driver,” Palmer said. “And then I kind of figured out something that (coach) Randy Smith and I talked about as far as in my setup.

“And when I got to (the fifth) tee, I just kind of felt better over the ball, getting a little closer to the ball with my driver and just kind of started going from there. And then I hit a great two shots on five and then the putt on, for eagle was kind of my jump-start.”

He chipped in from 67 feet on No. 9 for his second eagle in five holes.

Co-leader Harris English watches his drive on the first hole.

“Hit some great shots coming in,” Palmer said. “It’s kind of carrying over from the tournaments I played back in October, with those events, and the game’s feeling really good right now.”

Perhaps English summed it up best when asked what it might take to win this week. The field was a total of 142-under par on Thursday.

“I really have no idea. It’s all based on the weather out here. You get some wind, dry this place out a little bit, you never really know,” English said. “I’m going to keep plugging along, keep trying to hit as many greens as I can and get the putter going.”

Streb was the leader in the clubhouse when he finished his early round — the day began with a hard rain in the early morning.

“It’s always great to be here. And the weather was a little dodgy for about 40 minutes during warmup today,” Streb said. “It was pretty awful, but yeah, cleared up really nice and ended up playing a good round of golf. Yeah, I left a couple out there but might have got away with one or two as well.”

Sungjae Im tees off on No. 1.

Taylor, who hasn’t played here since 2015, said the benign weather was a key to his success Thursday.

“I’ve been here I think for a while, I got here last Tuesday, so the first four, five days I was here it was blowing 30, 40 miles an hour, so it felt like today was calm,” Taylor said. “But obviously with some rain this morning it was soft and gettable. It was going further on some holes because the wind was down a little bit. So took advantage of a couple of the par-5s, just played solid.”

* Robert Collias is at rcollias@mauinews.com.

Stewart Cink chips onto the 18th green as spectators look on.

Nick Taylor bumps fists with Carlos Ortiz’s caddie after his round.

Patrick Reed tees off on the first hole.

Robert Streb tees off during a morning drizzle.

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