An Byeong-hun enjoys blemish free 68 to stay close to leaders at Valspar Championship
A return to one of his favorite tracks on the PGA Tour seems to have brought the best out of An Byeong-hun.
The 31-year-old Korean, fresh off a T35 finish at The Players Championship last week, fired a bogey-free 3-under 68 to lie two strokes behind the co-leaders after the first round of the Valspar Championship at Innisbrook Golf Resort’s Copperhead Course on Thursday.
Seeking a maiden Tour win, An birdied Hole Nos. 5, 10 and 17 to keep joint leaders Ryan Brehm, Adam Schenk and Stephan Jaeger, who carded matching 66s, firmly in his sight. Brehm, who has missed 14 cuts out 17 starts this season, stood out amongst the trio when he fired his career-first hole-in-one with a 7-iron on the par-3 17th hole.
An’s countryman, Kim Seong-hyeon shot a 71 to lie in a share of 32nd place and was matched by China’s Zecheng Dou, who endured a roller-coaster round before finishing strongly with two late birdies. Carl Yuan of China returned a 72 for T58 while another Korean Lee Kyoung-hoon carded a 74.
Two of the tournament’s top draws, Jordan Spieth fired a 67 for tied fourth while Justin Thomas opened with a 69.
An, who was once ranked in the world’s top-50, is hoping to follow in the footsteps of Korean legend, K.J. Choi, who won the tournament in 2002 and 2006. “Bogey-free out on this course is nice. My short game was pretty decent. Made some good par putts. I gave myself a lot of good looks and I was definitely happy with 3-under,” said An.
While he relishes the challenges posed by Innisbrook, An has never fared better than 49th place from his debut appearance in 2017. “I don’t think I’ve had a good finish out here yet. I’ve played this golf course a few times as a junior too and this is my fourth time playing.
“I really do like this golf course. It’s a ball striker’s course. I never was able to play well, but maybe this year something’s clicking, I don’t know. But this is such a good golf course. I think it’s not very long, but it’s tight and it’s got a lot of trees. I just made a lot of par putts and hopefully, I can do that for three more days.”
An, the 2009 U.S. Amateur champion, has enjoyed a consistent season where he has missed only four cuts in 15 starts. His best result was tied fourth at the Fortinet Championship and he currently ranks 63rd on the FedExCup points list.
Brehm is chasing a second PGA Tour victory after breaking through at the Puerto Rico Championship last year. Apart from his magical ace on No. 17, he notched four birdies on Holes No. 1, 5, 11 and 14 to offset a lone bogey on the sixth hole.
“It kind of surprised me when I saw it go in the hole, honestly,” said Brehm of his ace. “But we got a good reaction. It was a lot of fun. I was really just trying to cover the front edge of the green, and we had the wind that was down off of the right.”
BY JIM BULLEY [firstname.lastname@example.org]