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Matt Kuchar opens one-shot lead in Phoenix

By Mike Tulumello, The Sports Xchange
Matt Kuchar opens one-shot lead in Phoenix
Matt Kuchar hits out of a bunker. Photo by Kevin Dietsch/UPI | License Photo

SCOTTSDALE, Ariz. - Matt Kuchar needed a break.

The seven-time PGA Tour winner had a busier schedule than ever from the summer -- including his bronze-medal performance at the Olympics -- until nearly Christmas. So he took several weeks off, watching his kids play basketball, until returning to the tour on Thursday at the Waste Management Phoenix Open.

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He made his 2017 debut a success by firing a 7-under-par 64 to take a one-shot lead over Hideki Matsuyama and Brendan Steele.

"I knew I was going to need a break," said Kuchar, whose last win came in 2014 at the RBC Heritage. "I decided to go ahead and go hard from the summer on, then take my break starting at Christmas."

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While taking the time off, he worked on his game while watching such young players as Justin Thomas and Adam Hadwin shoot 59s on tour.

"I figured I'd better to get to work and make sure my game is sharp," Kuchar said. "I knew I had my work cut out for me."

He took the lead with a birdie at the short par-4 17th. He nearly chipped in from off the green for an eagle.

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Matsuyama, bidding for his second straight win at the Phoenix Open, and Steele shot a 6-under 65.

Matsuyama ranks the Phoenix Open as probably his "No. 1" place to play "because I have had such good success here and played well here," he said through an interpreter. "I wish I knew why I play well here. But I did hit the ball very well today, hit a lot of greens, a lot of good shots."

Tied for fourth at 5-under 66 in the tournament at TPC Scottsdale, which annually draws the largest crowds in golf, are John Peterson, Scott Brown, Byeong Hun An, Robert Garrigus and Chris Kirk.

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Rickie Fowler shot a 4-under 67. He blew a lead in the final round last year when he used a driver on the short par 4 17th (he hit the ball over the green and into the water).

"I played well last year. Unfortunately, I didn't get the job done," Fowler said. "But I felt like I played fairly well today. I hit a lot of fairways. It felt good to have a stress-free round."

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Fowler said he has played well in desert settings since he was a junior golfer in California.

"I like the golf course. It's fun to play. You drive it well, and you can make a lot of birdies. The energy here, the crowds, especially (Friday and Saturday) is fun."

Also at 4 under are Brooks Koepka, the 2015 winner, Steve Stricker, J.B. Holmes, a two-time Phoenix Open winner, Martin Laird and Alex Cejka.

Phil Mickelson was among a group of players who finished at 3-under 68.

Mickelson said he needs to drive the ball a bit better and to make putts in "that critical area of about 10 to 20 feet. Those are the ones that can really propel the round.

"I missed a number of short birdies from 15 feet and less on the front, but then I made two long ones on eight and nine. So it was a very unusual round."

Jon Rahm, the winner last week in San Diego, shot a 1-under 70. Rahm is popular in the Phoenix area for his time at Arizona State, where he became the world's top amateur player before he turned pro last summer. He finished fifth at the Phoenix Open as an amateur two years ago.

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"When I came here as an amateur, I was so naïve, such a rookie. I had no idea what to do," Rahm said. "I was scared of being in everybody's way.

"And today I get paired with Jordan (Spieth, who also shot 70) and Rickie in the featured group. That's quite a change."

Peterson, though pleased with his 5-under round, gave a stinging self-critique: "I have severely underachieved, and I think a lot of people that are around the PGA Tour have been here for a while would agree. I just haven't really given it my full effort since I have been out here. I just kind of treaded water.

"But now I have a wife ... a mortgage. I'm starting to treat it more like a job. And I'm really just getting sick of underachieving."

Peterson, a standout in college at Louisiana State, began playing on tour in 2014.

NOTES: The crowd was estimated at 103,420, well off the Thursday record of 118,461 set in 2015. ... Several players were unable to finish their rounds because of darkness. ... Matt Kuchar, ranked No. 21 in the world, missed just two fairways and two greens in regulation. He made five birdies, an eagle 3 at No. 13 and no bogeys. ... Pat Perez, who ranks third in the FedExCup standings, withdrew because of a sore shoulder. ... Phil Mickelson is appearing in his 28th Phoenix Open, one short of the record. ... Brendan Steele eagled the long par-4 14th by holing his second shot from 194 yards.

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