The story is about as old as the 64-year-old American Express PGA Tour event.
Someone goes to La Quinta Country Club and tears apart the front nine, only to hit a wall on the back nine. Rounds that seem destined to sniff 59 suddenly turn into solid but somehow disappointing rounds in the low 60s.
The story was repeated again Thursday, with Davis Thompson providing the drama. A brilliant 8-under 28 on the front nine at La Quinta, including back-to-back eagles on the par-5s at the fifth and sixth holes, was followed by a pedestrian 2-under 34 on the tougher back nine. The result was a 10-under 62 that pushed Thompson into the first-round tournament lead but left Thompson wanting more.
“That was kind of like my biggest challenge today was staying present-minded and trying to put one foot in front of the other,” said the 23-year-old Thompson, playing in the tournament for the first time after spending 2021-22 on the Korn Ferry Tour. “Your mind definitely starts to wander a little bit. But I played enough rounds to where I try to teach myself over and over you can’t get ahead of yourself.”
Sam Burns seemed on the verge of catching Thompson most of the afternoon, going 7 under through nine holes at the tougher Pete Dye Stadium Course at PGA West. But Burns also cooled off on his final nine holes, bogeying the 18th for a 64. That left Burns in a five-way tie for second place with Jon Rahm who played at La Quinta, Tyler Duncan, who played the Nicklaus Tournament Course at PGA West, Matti Schmid, who played the Stadium Course, and Taylor Montgomery, who shot his 64 at La Quinta.
Nine players finished at 65, including Southern California PGA section representative and PGA of America player of the year Michael Block, and world No. 6 Xander Schauffele.
Thompson’s 62 at La Quinta in the first round was hardly unique for the low-scoring American Express. Patrick Cantlay and Lee Hodges shot 62 in the first round on the course last year, and Phil Mickelson fired a 60 in the first round in 2019. Rahm shot 62 at La Quinta Country Club to start the 2018 event that he won.
If there was a surprise in Thompson’s round, it was that he had never played the course in competition. But he made sure to learn something about desert layouts before coming to La Quinta.
“I was able to come out here early before I went to Hawaii (the Sony Open) and played out here on the Nicklaus Course. So I was a little familiar with it,” said Thompson, who played in eight PGA Tour events in 2020-21 and in three more in 2021-22. “But just got off to a hot start and just kind of coasted on my way in. But it’s always good to see some putts go in early and give you confidence to just keep it rolling.”
Fast start at La Quinta
Thompson birdied three of the first four holes at La Quinta before hitting the scoring holes of the fifth and sixth, consecutive par-5s that are reachable for all the PGA Tour pros. He rolled in a 12-foot putt for eagle on the fifth hole, then missed the green in two on the sixth hole but chipped in from 60 feet for his second consecutive eagle to reach 7 under through six holes.
“I had good numbers on both those holes. I actually missed the green on 6 and chipped in,” Thompson said. “I put two good swings on it and had a really nice chip and a really good putt.”
But Thompson added just one more birdie on the front nine at the ninth hole, then made birdies on the 13th and 18th holes on the back nine to cap the 62.
Rahm, ranked fourth in the world and coming off a win at the Sentry Tournament of Champions two weeks ago, didn’t have the red-hot nine like Thompson or Burns. Instead, he opened with five birdies on his front nine, including birdies on the two par-5s. He then bogeyed the 10th hole but added three consecutive birdies after that. A birdie at 17 pushed him to 64 on a course he knows he must play well.
“Give me enough time, I’ll be picky about a lot of things,” Rahm said after the round. “But it’s a great start to the tournament. You can’t really win it on this golf course, but you can sure fall off the pace. It’s a great start, solid round of golf, great putting out there. Hopefully, I can keep that going the whole week and feel a little bit better tee to green.”
Rahm was part of a field of five of the top seven players in the world in the desert tournament this week, and those players all fought into contention. Schauffele’s 66 at La Quinta left him tied for sixth. Scottie Scheffler and Patrick Cantlay each shot 68, while Will Zalatoris shot 69. In all, 123 of the 156 pros in the field broke par-72.
Rahm admits he’s playing golf as well as anyone in the world right now.
“Very confident. I think it showed out there. I didn’t have my best. I didn’t find myself in the fairway very often through the round, but was able to get birdies out of it. And that’s the beauty of that,” Rahm said. “I mean I would like people to think that it’s hard to beat me and almost impossible because, again, if I don’t have my A game and I’m shooting rounds like this it should be a pretty good year.”