McDowell off the pace as Knox takes early Mayakoba lead

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McDowell off the pace as Knox takes early Mayakoba lead

Graeme McDowell (Photo by Gregory Shamus/Getty Images)

Graeme McDowell struggled to a one-over par opening 72 as 2018 Irish Open winner Russell Knox’s 65 snatched the first round lead at the PGA Tour’s Mayakoba Golf Classic.

It was a similar tale to McDowell’s last few weeks on Tour with a spark still missing from the former US Open champion’s play. Four bogeys mixed with three birdies accounted for his opening effort, leaving the Northern Irishman positioned precariously on the cut-line in a tie for 70th as his search for form continues. McDowell had spoken about his excitement before the Masters in heading to Augusta in good putting form but what he saw in practice didn’t translate to the smooth surfaces in Georgia, where he missed the cut before rather limping to a share of 59th at the following week’s RSM Classic. He’ll be hoping for a big putting performance Friday to ensure a weekend appearance in Mexico.

Meanwhile, an Irish Open Champion in Ballyliffin two years ago, Russell Knox’s superb six-under par 65 at a breezy and wet El Camaleon Golf Club was good enough for a one-shot lead ahead of Friday’s second round. The 35-year-old Scot birdied five of the last six holes on his opening nine, then played the final nine in one-under with a bogey on the par-4 second and birdies on the par-5 fifth and par-4 sixth.

“Took me a few holes to kind of settle into my round, but when I did, I had six or seven very good holes,” Knox said. “I hit the ball well, drove it in the fairway, and with lift, clean and place, I could be fairly aggressive. Par was good today.”

Chile’s Joaquin Niemann was a stroke back with Argentina’s Emiliano Grillo and American Tom Hoge. Niemann is donating his entire prize money and $5,000 for every birdie and $10,000 for an eagle to help pay for a drug for his 2-month-old relative in Chile:

“I’m playing for Rafita, that is one of my cousins that was diagnosed a couple days ago with a really rare disease,” the 22-year-old Niemann said. “All the guys here on tour are being really nice, using the little ribbons we’re having to support Rafita. He’s fighting now in Chile, so we’ve got to work our way to help him.”

Niemann also finished on the front nine, making birdies on Nos. 3, 5, 6 and 7: “It was tough,” Niemann said. “It was hard to adjust myself into the wind early, but I’m really happy the way I played. Took me a couple holes to like figure it out a little bit with the wind. I’m really happy the way I played and the way I finished.”

Knox has two victories on the PGA Tour while he also has form at the Mayakoba where he lost in a playoff in 2016: “I guess it’s the tequila and tacos,” Knox laughed. “Obviously, I love the course. It sets up well for me. I mean, historically, my driving accuracy and iron play’s been my strength, so that’s kind of the key things that this course brings out in you.”

He liked the wind better than the rain-softened turf: “I always kind of want it to be a little windy,” Knox said. “I feel like I can flight my ball well at times. But it’s so soft out here, it’s the opposite of like links golf. No, I’m thrilled with that and look forward to trying again tomorrow.”

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