Golf | Steele sets the pace in Napa

Napa – Brendan Steele charged one stroke
clear after the opening round of the Open on Thursday, though golfing
heavyweights Rory McIlroy and Justin Rose were among those in hot pursuit.

American Steele took advantage of
near-perfect conditions at a sun-splashed Silverado Resort in Napa, California,
firing a brilliant nine-under-par 63 on the North Course to rocket to the top
of the leaderboard.

Steele, whose only PGA Tour victory came at
the 2011 Texas Open, birdied seven of his last eight holes for a red-hot
homeward nine of seven-under 29 to set a sizzling pace in the season-opening
event on the US circuit’s 2015-16 schedule.

Venezuela’s Jhonattan Vegas carded a 64
while American rookie Harold Varner III and Britain’s Martin Laird returned 65s
but Steele will certainly be keeping a wary eye on world number seven Rose (67)
and third-ranked McIlroy (68).

“I was really comfortable,”
Steele, 32, told Golf Channel after racking up nine birdies in a bogey-free
display in the opening round.

“I’m just trying to stick into my
process and, as cliched as it sounds, just kind of get into every shot as much
as I can and not really think about the results. The golf course is in perfect
shape, just the right amount of bounce on the greens.

“They’re not too soft, not too firm.
They’re rolling perfect. Everything was great,” said Steele, who grew up
in the small Californian town of Hemet where was neither a golf course nor a
driving range.

Englishman Rose, who won his first major
title at the 2013 US Open, mixed six birdies with a lone bogey to vault up the

“It went well,” said Rose, back
in action on the PGA Tour just two weeks after tying for second place at the
Tour Championship, the final event of the 2014-15 season.

“A couple of guys are going lower than
that but for the first round of the season … it was a nice way to get things

McIlroy, making his first trip to the
idyllic wine country of California’s Napa Valley, bogeyed his fourth hole of
the day before rebounding with five birdies to climb into contention.

“I felt like I played pretty
well,” said the Northern Irishman, 26, who won three tournaments earlier
this year before being sidelined for almost two months after rupturing an ankle
ligament while playing soccer with friends on July 4.

“I got off to a bit of a slow start
this morning but gradually got into the round and started hitting some better
shots and giving myself plenty of chances.

“I didn’t convert many of them but
still a pretty solid score and in good position going into the next three

A notable absentee this week is last year’s
winner, Bae Sang-moon, due to a requirement for him to complete two years of
military service in his native South Korea.

First-round scores on Thursday in the $6 million USPGA Tour
Open (round suspended because of darkness, USA unless noted, par 72):

63 – Brendan Steele

64 – Jhonattan Vegas (VEN)

65 – Harold Varner, Martin Laird (SCO)

66 – Justin Thomas, D.H. Lee (KOR)

67 – Jason Gore, Justin Rose (ENG), Russell Henley, Graham DeLaet (CAN), Scott Langley, Daniel Summerhays

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