MEMPHIS, Tenn. (AP) — With the U.S. Open looming next week, Brooks Koepka wanted a final chance to tune up his game and added the St. Jude Classic to his schedule at the last minute.
Good thing he did.
Koepka matched his low score this year shooting a 6-under 64 that gave him a share of the lead with Ryan Palmer and Greg Owen after the opening round Thursday at TPC Southwind.
“It was important to me,” Koepka said. “I needed a few more rounds to help to try to find the confidence, find my good play. I’ve been playing well, just don’t feel like I’m getting the results. And I felt like I just needed another week to really figure it out, and it’s nice to figure it out a little bit.”
Koepka has three Top 20 finishes since his win at Phoenix in February, but he also withdrew from the Arnold Palmer Invitational in March before missing the cut at The Players Championship. His original plan was taking this week off until he committed last Friday. He shot a 78 in the final round at Memorial and tied for 52nd, leaving him unhappy with his play.
He had eight birdies and two bogeys, finishing with back-to-back birdies for a share of his first lead after 18 holes on the PGA Tour.
“It’s getting better now,” Koepka said. “Obviously still three more days, anything can happen. But looking forward to the next three days and trying to test this new theory, new game plan out.”
Scott Brown, Steven Alker, Brian Davis and Richard Sterne each shot 65s. Defending champ Ben Crane tied four others with 66s.
Boo Weekley was tied with six others at 67, and Phil Mickelson was in a group of 11 at 68.
Palmer had seven holes left after reaching 6 under, but he had to scramble down the stretch and needed to get up and down on his 18th hole, No. 9, to keep a piece of the lead. His last victory came in 2010 at the Sony Open, though he tied for second in Phoenix and tied for sixth at the Texas Open this year.
He needed only 24 putts Thursday with his closest birdie putt at 6 feet with a couple 20 feet and longer.
“I’ve been trying to get comfortable with the putter,” Palmer said. “I finally found the position I had last year from the British Open through the playoffs when I putted some of my best I felt. And I get on the putting green this morning and found it. The ball position, the width of my stance, where my shoulders and feet were, and it paid off today.”
Owen, an Englishman who now lives in Florida, has played 213 PGA Tour events since turning pro in 2005. He’s back on tour thanks to a Web.com Tour exemption. He topped the 66 that had been his low round this year back in April in New Orleans in the opening round where he wound up tied for 43rd.
This is the first time he’s ever had the lead or a piece of the lead in his 214th start. Owen said his game started coming around at the Byron Nelson where he shot in the 60s his final three rounds.
“I’m healthy and fit and I’m putting well,” Owen said. “That’s a big bonus for me, confidence with the putt.”
Crane was the only player to get to 7 under as he rolled in seven birdies in nine holes. But he started hitting shots into the rough and wound up with bogeys on three of his final five holes.
“Obviously had it going pretty low there for a while, and all in all, I feel like my game is going in the right direction,” Crane said. “Feel very comfortable on this golf course. I love this place.”
Mickelson was at 4 under after a quick start with four birdies over his first seven holes starting on the back nine. A couple bogeys on the par 3s on the front nine dropped him to 2 under.
“It’s a course if you hit some poor shots will bite you,” Mickelson said.
Divots: Palmer and Owen were part of only six bogey-free rounds Thursday. … Dustin Johnson, the highest-ranked player in this event at No. 7 in the world and the 2012 champ here, withdrew after nine holes because of illness. … This was the first tie for the lead at this event after 18 holes since six shared the opening lead in 2013.
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