MEMPHIS, Tenn. — Lee Westwood prefers competition the week before a major to tune up his play. The Englishman looks quite ready now for the U.S. Open based on his opening round at the St. Jude Classic.
Westwood took advantage of no wind and a rain-softened course to shoot a 7-under 63 Thursday that equaled his best on the PGA Tour and gave him a one-stroke lead in the suspended first round. The world’s No. 3-ranked player tied the course record for the back nine with a 29 with four of his five birdies and an eagle. He parred out his final eight holes.
Former Mississippi State All-American Michael Connell shot an opening-round 66, tying with seven others for fourth place.
“Pleased with the start, 63 is always a good start,” Westwood said. “I couldn’t be disappointed with that. Could have been better, but I’m not going to cry too much about missing from 4 feet on the last.”
Not bad for someone who flew from London to San Francisco to play 27 holes Sunday at Pebble Beach with another 18 Monday before heading to Memphis. Westwood played nine holes Tuesday and a practice round Wednesday in his first visit to this course, but wound up with near-perfect scoring conditions in the eighth group off the 10th tee Thursday.
“My caddie said normally there’s a bit of breeze that blows. You try and score when you get your morning time on the first two days when it’s fairly calm, so that’s what I tried to do,” Westwood said.
Casey Wittenberg shot a 64, Padraig Harrington had a 65 and Tim Petrovic, John Senden and Bob Estes were among eight tied at 66 before a severe thunderstorm stopped play for nearly an hour. The round was suspended with 20 golfers left on the course.
No one teeing off in the afternoon cracked the leaderboard with muggy conditions smothering the course with 100-degree heat, and wind that usually toughens this course staying relatively still before the storms developed.
“It was probably as easy conditions as you will get out here on Southwind,” said Garrett Willis, who shot 66 in the morning.
Defending champ Brian Gay, who was under par each round in winning a year ago, opened with a 73. Jordan Spieth, the Texas teen who became the sixth-youngest player to make a PGA cut at the Byron Nelson last month, shot a 73.
Westwood is playing on a sponsor’s exemption extended after being originally turned down. That prompted him to joke to reporters at the time it might be due to his sponsorship deal with UPS for an event in a town where rival FedEx is headquartered. He had been given an exemption two years ago, then withdrew a week before the tournament.
“I’ve never been to Memphis, so it’s somewhere I wanted to come and play,” Westwood said. “It’s the week before the U.S. Open. I like to be competitive before a major championship. I played Houston before the Masters. Being competitive means more to me than actually adapting to the conditions. … I like to get used to making the 3-, 4-footers when they mean something.”
Westwood mixed good putting with strong iron play, needing only 11 of his 24 putts through his first 10 holes. He rolled in a 30-footer on the par-4 15th and a 15-footer on the par-4 18th for birdies. He stuck a 5-wood within 4 feet to set up his eagle putt on the par-4 No. 16.
The putter failed him on his 18th hole, the par-4 No. 9, as he just missed from 4 feet.
Westwood matched the 63 he shot during the third-round of the 2005 World Golf Championships-Bridgestone Invitational. The 37-year-old Englishman is playing well this year, having made the cut in all seven events here this year including second at the Masters with four top 10s.
He got started with an 8-foot birdie putt on No. 12, then hit a 5-iron to 5 feet on the par-3 14th for a birdie-birdie-eagle stretch. After a 29 on the back side to match the mark last shot by Tom Pernice Jr. in 2004, Westwood said he wasn’t even aware of that mark.
Did he think of cracking 60 as he made the turn to the easier side?
“I didn’t dwell on that for too long,” Westwood said. “I’ve had a chance to shoot 59 before. You tend not to do it when you let your mind get away from you a little bit. I was just trying to hit good shots really and carry on doing what I had been doing on the front nine.”
Westwood hit into the water on the par-5 third before just missing with the putter on Nos. 4 and 5. He saved par on No. 7 with a 15-footer.
Wittenberg, who lives next to the course, took advantage of his local knowledge and his father carrying his bag to equal his low round on the PGA Tour. This is his first start this year on a sponsor’s exemption, and he said he’s relaxed knowing he didn’t qualify for the U.S. Open.
Wittenberg has missed his last four cuts on the Nationwide Tour this season.
“My expectations are really kind of low. I knew if I could come out here and hit good golf shots that maybe I could get something going,” Wittenberg said.
DIVOTS: Robert Allenby, ranked 13th in the world, withdrew due to illness after nine holes. He was 5 over on the back nine. David Gossett withdrew after shooting 47 on the front nine with a hamstring injury, and Jerod Turner also withdrew. … Billy Mayfair had a hole-in-one on No. 8, using a 7-iron from 170 yards. Will MacKenzie followed five groups later with his own hole-in-one using the same club.
Teresa M. Walker/The Associated Press