Smith leads St. Jude golf

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MEMPHIS, Tenn. (AP) – Chris Smith used some strong putting and a little creativity around the greens Thursday in shooting a 6-under 64 to take a two-stroke lead after the first round of the St. Jude Classic.

D.A. Points shot a 66. Paul Azinger and Tom Pernice were among only four golfers teeing off in the afternoon to crack the leaderboard.

with 67s, and Azinger said winds gusting to 22 mph made the usually scoring-friendly TPC at Southwind a tough course.

“The pins were hard, the winds were blowing. It’s obviously hard. It played hard,” he said.

Nick Price, a two-time champion with five Top 10s at the TPC at Southwind, shot a 68 and was tied with seven others including Fred Funk and Mark Calcavecchia.

Defending champion Justin Leonard shot a 72.

Points may have had the best chance of catching Smith after he birdied five of six holes through his first eight. He wound up parring out with the wind playing havoc with club selection and ball flight, leaving him happy to pull out pars especially on the 178-yard No. 8.

“My last look at the flag, I see the flag going straight into me. And then I hit the shot, and by the time my ball is halfway to the green, it’s blowing 20 mph straight left and all of a sudden my ball makes a U-turn and goes long left of the green,” Points said.

Smith had the luck of the draw in the second group to tee off on No. 1, and he birdied three of the first nine holes when the winds started gusting up to 20 mph. He gave credit to his putting and some lucky bounces.

He birdied the par-4, 482-yard No. 7 after hitting his second shot from the rough and over the back of the green on the fringe. He used a 5-wood and holed out from 50 feet for the first of three straight birdies.

On No. 8, Smith hit an 8-iron to 30 feet and rolled in the birdie putt. He had a 25-footer for birdie on the par-4 No. 9. He strung together six straight pars before hitting out of a greenside bunker to nearly 7 feet on the par-5, 530-yard No. 16 and sinking the birdie putt.

He finished up with more luck on the par-4 No. 17 where he holed out a 52-footer.

“I caught lightning in a bottle on 17,” Smith said.

Smith could use some good bounces. The first player to earn a promotion with three straight victories on the Nationwide Tour in 1997 hasn’t finished inside the top 100 since 2002, when his pay was boosted by his lone PGA Tour victory. He finished 154th last year and had only one top-10 finish.

This year, he has made only three cuts in his previous eight events, and a tie for 42nd at the BellSouth Classic in April is his best finish. Thursday marked only his third round in the 60s out of 24 this year.

Smith, 37, said he’s learned to enjoy the ups and downs of life on the PGA Tour.

“My wife tells me all the time you have to take steps back to go forward. And I feel like the last three, four years, I’ve taken a whole bunch of steps backward, and I’m anxious to take a few steps forward,” Smith said.

He wasn’t planning on a big celebration for only the fourth time he’s led after the first round and first since Doral in March 2004. He said he’s trying to improve mentally and play as well on tour as he does back home in Indiana.

“That’s kind of taken a little bit of the pressure off of me in the last year or so because I realize that it’s battling myself. I’m not battling everybody else. Because I can promise you I played 20 tournaments better out here than the one that I won. When I won, it just happened to be right,” he said.

“I made a bunch of putts and got good bounces.”

Divots: John Daly, having problem with his back, couldn’t have started worse. He bogeyed his first four holes and had a double bogey on No. 9 and made the turn at 5 over. He birdied his final hole to finish at 7-over 77. … Shane Bertsch was 5 over through nine when he withdrew with a neck injury. Ryan Moore withdrew with a hand injury, while Harrison Frazar withdrew with an infected finger.

AP-ES-05-25-06 2020EDT

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