BEDMINSTER, N.J. – Cameron Smith was frustrated after finishing 35th last week in Greenbrier, his worst result of the LIV Golf League season. He didn’t feel good about his putter, or about the distance control with his wedges, normally two of his strengths. “A weird week,” he called it.
There was nothing weird about his play in Friday’s first round at LIV Golf Bedminster. Dialed in on a tough, challenging course, the Ripper GC captain opened with a 5-under 66 to grab a one-stroke lead over Charles Howell III at Trump National Bedminster.
“A little bit different to last week, which was the goal – especially today,” said Smith, seeking his second individual win of the season after last month’s victory in London.
The Australian star wasn’t the only one having a bounce-back moment.
Team points leader 4Aces GC suffered its worst-ever team result, a last-place finish in Greenbrier. But with Dustin Johnson and Patrick Reed shooting twin 3-under 68s on Friday to share third place on the individual leaderboard, the Aces are tied for second with Stinger GC, one shot behind the Rippers.
“Definitely shocked, of course,” Reed said about last week. “Our team is way better than finishing last in a golf tournament. But at the same time, you just kind of go to one of those golf courses that doesn't really fit your eye. If it happens not to fit a couple other guys on the team's eye, either, you can just kind of get in one of those funks.”
With just three tournaments left in the regular season, a poor result can be costly in both the individual and team races. With Torque GC winning in Greenbrier, the 4Aces’ lead was reduced to seven points.
But after a hot start by the Aces on Friday, and Torque back in the pack in 10th place, it’s an opportunity for the Aces to rebuild their lead and create some separation from the closest chasers. They won at Bedminster last year during a stretch of four consecutive victories.
“Obviously coming in here, it's a really good golf course, tough golf course. I think our team plays better on courses like this,” said 4Aces Captain Dustin Johnson. “We want to have a good week, and obviously we need to extend our lead a little bit.”
Smith is in his own race for the season-long Individual Champion title. He entered this week in second place, 15 points behind three-time tournament winner Talor Gooch, who is tied for 15th after the first round after shooting an even-par 71.
Trying to chase down Gooch, who has won three times this season, was one of the reasons Smith put in extra work on the range and practice greens this week.
“That was part of the reason for the work … to be the best at the end of the season. That's what you want to be,” Smith said. “Sure, you want to win tournaments, but I think proving it over 13 tournaments is much better than one.”
Here are the standings and counting scores for Friday’s opening round of the team competition at LIV Golf Bedminster. The three best scores from each team count in every round for their total team score. The team with the lowest cumulative score after three rounds wins the team title.
1. RIPPER GC (-4): Cameron Smith 66, Marc Leishman 71, Jediah Morgan 72
T2. STINGER GC (-3): Dean Burmester 69, Branden Grace 70, Charl Schwartzel 71
T2. 4ACES GC (-3): Dustin Johnson 68, Patrick Reed 68, Peter Uihlein 74
T4. HYFLYERS GC (-2): Phil Mickelson 70, Cameron Tringale 70, Brendan Steele 71
T4. RANGEGOATS GC (-2): Bubba Watson 69, Harold Varner III 71, Talor Gooch 71
6. CRUSHERS GC (-1): Charles Howell III 67, Paul Casey 72, Bryson DeChambeau 73
7. FIREBALLS GC (E): Abraham Ancer 69, Carlos Ortiz 70, Sergio Garcia 74
T8. SMASH GC (+1): Jason Kokrak 69, Brooks Koepka 72, Matthew Wolff 73
T8. CLEEKS GC (+1): Bernd Wiesberger 69, Graeme McDowell 72, Richard Bland 73
10. TORQUE GC (+3): Joaquin Niemann 70, Sebastian Munoz 73, Mito Pereira 73
11. IRON HEADS GC (+4): Kevin Na 71, Sihwan Kim 72, Scott Vincent 74
12. MAJESTICKS GC (+7): Henrik Stenson 71, Laurie Canter 74, Lee Westwood 75
CH3 FEEDS OFF BRYSON’S RECORD EFFORT: Mayakoba winnerCharles Howell III admits he’s not great at opening champagne bottles. His teammate Paul Casey is much more adept at it. Both players had a chance to spray Bryson DeChambeau last week after the record-setting 12-under 58 that their captain shot to win at Greenbrier.
“I am horrendous at it,” Howell said. “At Mayakoba, I didn't even get the cork off and then just quit. This one I was nervous it wouldn't come off, so I shook it a bit and then popped it off to make sure it would. Yeah, Paul is extremely accurate on that. I'm not good.”
Fortunately, he’s very good at golf, as evidenced by the 4-under 66 to grab solo second behind Cameron Smith. He scrambled on his final hole, rolling in a lengthy putt to save par at the par-3 16th and stay within a shot of Smith.
Despite DeChambeau’s heroics last week, the Crushers finished a distant second to Torque GC. They’re in sixth place after Friday’s first round.
“I need to uphold my end of the spectrum, and I've done that most weeks,” Howell said. “A few weeks I've struggled. I love our team. I love our guys. Got to mention Bryson's 61-58 again last weekend, which is just incredible golf.
“That's a bit of the team aspect that gets a bit underrated is the pressure you feel. I'm kind of OK disappointing myself. I don't want to disappoint those around you. You feel it every day.”
SPEAKING OF DECHAMBEAU: The Crushers captain followed up his record-setting performance in Greenbrier with a 2-over 73 that left him tied for 27th. He got off to a rough start, his tee shot finding the woods to the right of the first fairway, forcing him to take a penalty stroke and hit his third shot from a nearby parking lot. He did well to bogey the hole but was 3 over through seven holes before making birdies on three of the next four holes.
DIFFICULT BEDMINSTER: After record-setting scoring performances by both the individual and team winners last week in Greenbrier, don’t expect anything close this week at Bedminster, a course that has major credentials, having hosted the 2017 U.S. Women’s Open.
Torque GC won the team title at 49 under last week, while DeChambeau won the individual trophy at 23 under.
Last year at LIV Golf Bedminster, Henrik Stenson won the individual title at 11 under while the 4Aces won the team title at 25 under – two of the lowest winning totals of the year.
After Friday’s first round, the Rippers lead at 4 under, while Smith is at 5 under.
“It's a great golf course,” said Smith after his first competitive round at Bedminster. “You can see how it was going to host a major for sure. The rough is pretty gnarly. I think if these greens were firm and fast, it would be a really tough test of golf, and it would be tough to break par.”
“Loved it last year when we played here,” said Patrick Reed. “I think it's just a really solid golf course tee to green. It's as good as you want for a golf course. It's tough but it's fair. You've got to hit good golf shots. Completely opposite of last week.”
CAM OFF THE CART PATH: Cameron Smith’s tee shot found the cart path at the par-5 15th, and he opted to hit from there instead of taking relief. He caught it flush and ended up getting up and down for birdie.
“Didn't really have another option,” Smith said. “The rough is pretty gnarly out here. The cart path I think is a better option than the rough.
“I try not to do it too often but managed to hit a pretty good shot. Probably actually didn't go as far as I thought it was going to go, but that was about it.”
Driving distance – Matthew Wolff, 342.0-yard average
Longest drive – Matthew Wolff, 372.9 yards (18th hole)
Driving accuracy – Anirban Lahiri, 93% (13 of 14)
Greens in regulation – Dustin Johnson, Marc Leishman, 83% (14 of 18)
Scrambling – Patrick Reed, 100% (7 of 7)
Fewest putts – Sihwan Kim, 23 putts
Most birdies – Cameron Tringale, 7
Bogey-free rounds – Patrick Reed (68)