(Reuters) - A refreshed Matt Kuchar seized a one-shot lead in the opening round of the Phoenix Open in Arizona on Thursday but had the ominous figure of reigning champion Hideki Matsuyama in hot pursuit.
Kuchar, a seven-times winner on the PGA Tour, took advantage of ideal scoring conditions at the TPC Scottsdale to fire a seven-under-par 64 that included birdies on his first two holes and an eagle at the par-five 13th where he drained a 20-footer.
He narrowly missed a birdie at the last, his attempt from 10 feet sliding past the left edge, to finish one ahead of fellow American Brendan Steele and world number five Matsuyama, the game’s hottest player over the past four months.
Sixth-ranked American Jordan Spieth opened with a 70 while three-times former winner Phil Mickelson, a popular figure at Scottsdale after attending the nearby Arizona State University, carded a 68.
Kuchar has not competed since winning the unofficial Franklin Templeton Shootout with partner Harris English in early December and was delighted to produce sharp form in his first tournament of the year.
“I played so much this past summer ... I needed a break and my break happened to be early on this year,” Kuchar, 38, told Golf Channel after play was suspended for the day in fading light with nine players still on the course.
”I was able to be home, I was able to be dad. It was great fun for me. I also had some good things to work on this off-season ... and they paid off for sure.
“This course demands good driving of the golf ball. I had a fantastic day driving the ball and hopefully three more (days) to come.”
Matsuyama has recorded four wins and two runner-up spots in his last eight starts worldwide and once again put himself into contention as he racked up six birdies, including four in his first nine holes.
The 24-year-old, who beat American Rickie Fowler in a playoff to win last year’s Phoenix Open, was unable to explain the secret to his success at the TPC Scottsdale.
“I wish I knew why I play well here but I did hit the ball very well today,” said Matsuyama, speaking through an interpreter. “I hit a lot of greens, a lot of good shots.”
Asked how close he was to the scintillating form he produced in October to win the WGC-HSBC Champions by a record seven shots, he replied: ”I‘m not hitting it and putting as well as I did in Shanghai.
“Hopefully through the week here I can get up to that same level and compete for the win again.”
Reporting by Mark Lamport-Stokes in St. Augustine, Florida; Editing by Peter Rutherford