It was an eventful Round 1 at the 2021 WGC-FedEx St. Jude Invitational with an interesting quartet near the top of a leaderboard being overtaken late by Harris English, who leads the field at 8 under. He was the primary storyline on Thursday, but there is plenty to discuss with the first 18 post-Olympics holes completed at TPC Southwind.
English has a lot at stake this week. Not just perhaps his first WGC victory but also potential PGA Tour Player of the Year implications as well as an assured spot on the U.S. Ryder Cup team. He made noise early with a 28 over his first nine holes and closed the door late on the foursome we'll get to below. Let's take a deeper dive on his round and a gander at the rest of this board after Day 1.
1. Harris English (-8): For a while, it looked like 59 was in play for English. He birdied seven of his first nine holes before making two bogeys on his first three on the second nine. He got those back, though, with three birdies on his last four holes of the day and shot a 62 with two bogeys. That's an absolute flex, and now English will try to become the first golfer this season to three victories. He's currently tied with Collin Morikawa, Stewart Cink, Jason Kokrak, Patrick Cantlay and Bryson DeChambeau with two. And while a third victory likely would not net him the PGA Tour Player of the Year frontrunner position going into the FedEx Cup Playoffs, it would at least put him into a real conversation for it and move him up to the No. 1 position in the race. Oh, and yes, English did putt well on Thursday, but he also flushed it all day, finishing third in strokes gained on approach shots.
T2. Matthew Wolff, Carlos Ortiz, Jim Herman, Ian Poulter (-6): What a crew here, and what years they have all put together. Herman does not have a top 10 anywhere in 2021, but he does have four top 30s in a row is fighting to get into the FedEx Cup Playoffs as he's outside the top 125 right now. A top-10 finish this week would be massive. Ortiz is coming in off an Olympics competition last week from halfway around the world, and he absolutely struck it on Thursday. Wolff, who has been absent off and on from the pro game (although he did pop up to contend at the U.S. Open at Torrey Pines), gave a really interesting quote after his 64 that was both enlightening and instructive.
"I think the most important thing for me is my attitude," said Wolff. "I think it's easy to have a good attitude when you start off well, but I made a ... pretty bad bogey from the middle of the fairway on No. 7, and after that I just felt like I kept my composure. For me, that's what I've been working on the most is just staying in the present and not getting too down on myself."
T6. Bryson DeChambeau, Scottie Scheffler, Marc Leishman (-5): Two golfers gained over 1.3 strokes off the tee. DeChambeau was one of them, gaining 2.15. He only lost (minuscule) strokes on two driving holes, and the rest of his game was good enough to put a number together. He said before the week that he didn't expect much from his game because of how much weight he'd lost on account of COVID-19, but his tune changed a bit on Thursday after his opening 65. "Yeah, lost a little bit, but back out here and excited to play," said DeChambeau. "Looking forward to the rest of the weekend; I feel like I can be there to win on Sunday."
T9. Max Homa, Daniel Berger, Sam Burns, Will Zalatoris (-4): Several intriguing stories here. All four have Ryder Cup implications as Berger is teetering on probably in and the other three are likely on the outside looking in. Zalatoris is also trying to play his way into the FedEx Cup Playoffs. He can only gain PGA Tour membership and get into the playoffs with a win this week or next, so he'll be going for broke all weekend, which could lead to some good drama over the next few days. Homa led the field in approach shots on Thursday.
T35. Phil Mickelson (-1): Lefty actually made six birdies on Thursday, but he complimented that with five bogeys. Remember, he was involved at this tournament last year until Justin Thomas took it home at the end, but this is the start of a very meaningful closing stretch for Mickelson. He has not missed a Ryder Cup since the 1993 matches at The Belfry, but he needs a crash to the wall here over the last month if he wants to get on the squad. He currently ranks No. 17 in the standings and would need a pretty deep (and rare captain's pick from there).
62. Rory McIlroy (+2): McIlroy has only lost this many strokes on the field (3.61) once since the Players Championship in March. It happened at the Irish Open last month. There's not a ton to be concerned about here. He hit the ball well enough, but his short game was atrocious. That can be fixed day over day, and I expect it will be on Friday.