Early reports from the CJ Cup at this first-time PGA Tour venue said to expect plenty of birdies, especially at the start of rounds. Boots on the ground, both reporters and players, have been hinting that this strong field would post plenty of low numbers at The Summit Club, a tony still-in-development model of American golf excess outside of Las Vegas. The first hole was reputed to be an extremely gentle handshake, with the challenge not dramatically increasing over the next five.
That’s not to say the Summit Club can’t pop you in the face if you get too far afield with driver and wind up in some junk or the natural landscape portion of the property, the desert waste. But you have to work for it, and the top players in the world carved it up in the first round … just maybe not the top players you expected.
Robert Streb, playing in the fourth group out on the day, demonstrated the birdie bonanzas that we heard would come early in the day. In truth, his kind of run is unlikely to be replicated this week, or anytime soon. This was more than a bonanza—this was an unconscious seven-under-through-six-holes start. It was an outrageous run that made the unlikeliest of players in the field the main show in the morning draw.
“The first several holes are pretty gettable,” Streb said, using a word that doesn’t feel like nearly enough to capture how the course set up for him. Gettable feels too benign. Flammable? Impotent? We need something more for seven-under-thru-six. “You’ve got a few tougher tee balls and stuff there on the back nine and some longer holes, so yeah, it always helps to get off to a hot start,” he continued. Again, “hot” does not feel like it goes far enough.
That pace was, of course, impossible to maintain over the last 12 holes, but Streb’s rig didn’t exactly leak oil as it made its way home. He finished with an 11-under 61, good enough for solo first through the opening 18. Keith Mitchell, who said he had his putting coach in town early in the week and felt like he was pulling things together, scared Streb’s number with his own 10-under 62 from the later wave on the tee sheet.
Jason Kokrak, the defending champ of this event when it was held at nearby Shadow Creek in 2020, posted the high round of the day, a 77. But in a limited field, there were 25 rounds of 67 or better. Some winds may come, but expect plenty of low ones scores and leader board movement this weekend in Vegas. The scoring average for the first round finished at 68.9 on the par 72, with more fireworks to come over the last 54 holes.
You’ve heard of the “get right” game in the NFL, where a talented team with expectations draws a soft opponent to figure some things out on a Sunday to get a season back on track. Perhaps the CJ Cup at The Summit Club will be that for Rickie Fowler, who shot a smooth 66 on Thursday to start the event inside the top 10.
Fowler missed the cut last week at the Shriners, then went to Butch Harmon’s facilities in the area for some extra practice while waiting to get it going at Summit. There is no cut this week to miss, but Fowler, playing on a sponsor’s exemption, did say that the close call last Friday at the Shriners gave him confidence and he could see a round like Thursday’s coming.
“It’s always fun to catch up with Butchie, he’s someone that’s just fun to be around, and on top of that it was nice to get to use the facility over there, hit some balls,” Fowler said after his round. “For me, for the most part, since I worked with him for such a long time in kind of the middle part of my career there, I think just getting kind of like his stamp of approval. He loved everything that Tillery [current swing coach John Tillery] and I were working on, so it’s just fun to be around him.”
There’s also some familiarity with the venue, relative to the rest of the field. Fowler is close with the owners of the property and has found himself playing it while in town over the years. The broadcast repeatedly used that golf cliché about everything being “in front of you” at Summit, and Fowler didn’t deviate much from how he usually plays it with friends—just let it rip.
“Today was more just go out and trust what I’ve done before out here, kind of stick to the way I’ve played the course before,” he said. “There’s some holes where sometimes in tournament golf you think about maybe laying back or not always hitting driver, but typically when we’re playing for fun, driver’s pretty much the main club.”
It’s just one round but maybe this is the week to get right for Fowler. This wasn’t a smoke-and-mirrors number, either, as he was second in strokes gained/tee-to-green when he walked off the course. That’s more than just some hot putter that could quickly cool off the next day and is an encouraging and fundamental sign of game. Last year became known as the year of the comeback for so many players with lengthy droughts that ended in both the men’s and women’s game. Perhaps Rickie will get on that train this year.
The roller coaster metaphor used to describe nearly every Jordan Spieth round was worn out by the end of the 2020-21 superseason. But after a couple weeks shutdown for maintenance, the ride is back up and running. Spieth matched Fowler’s 66 and is one of several stars off to a strong start in the desert.
The past year was an incredibly strong comeback statement for Spieth, but given how consistently he was in contention, one win didn’t feel commensurate with some of the tournament golf he displayed. He said as much throughout the return to the top of the World Ranking, including in that heartbreaker at The Open at Royal St. George’s, reiterating that the next step might be converting and winning again. This coming season may bring that next step.
Thursday’s round was a mixed bag. It was an almost clean card with just one bogey, but he lost strokes on approach. Much of the positive work for Spieth was done around the green, including this shot of the day at the par-3 11th, which was playing around 250 yards. This is that Spieth magic we saw again this past year and are quickly seeing again in his first start of the new season.
That was part of a four-straight-birdie stretch around the turn for Spieth, with much of it coming from exemplary wedge work.
Spieth is one of five recent Ryder Cuppers, along with Sergio Garcia, Ian Poulter, Viktor Hovland, and Scottie Scheffler, inside the top 10 at the CJ Cup. This is the strongest field of the nascent 2021-22 season and with a competitive round now under the field’s belt, we could be in for a birdie sprint in the desert.