Jon Rahm may be World No. 1 and an 11-time winner on the PGA Tour, and Austin Smotherman may trail by 341 spots and still be in search of his first trip to the winner’s circle on Tour, but they share at least one thing in common.
Rahm and Smotherman both are winners of the Mexico Open, and among two of the four past champions in the field this week.
Rahm, who won the Masters earlier this month, is the defending champion of the Mexico Open at Vidanta this week and opened with a 4-under 67 on Thursday at Vidanta Vallarta in Puerto Vallarta. Smotherman won the Mexico Open in 2018 when the national championship was part of PGA Tour Latinoamerica, and while he did so at a golf course in Tijuana, he had no trouble in Puerto Vallarta, posting an 8-under 63 to tie the course record and grab the early first-round lead.
“Still get a little bit of some goosebumps thinking about it, for sure,” Smotherman said of his victory south of the border. “The trophy’s not small by any size either, so I think just having to kneel down, take some photos with all the people after the round is one of the memories I remember because lifting that thing’s not easy.”
In the opening round, Smotherman made it look easy, reeling off four birdies in a row to finish his round, including a 37-foot chip-in birdie at the ninth.
“Kind of blinked, and the next thing you know had four birdies to finish,” said Smotherman, who entered the week No. 160 in the FedEx Cup standings. “Felt like I was in my zone today, just very present.”
Rahm, by contrast, seemed to be sleep walking through the first seven holes, which included two bogeys. But he planted his tee shot at 17, his eighth hole of the day, to 6 feet and sank the putt to get back to even par.
Rahm sprayed his driver both right and left, hitting just five fairways, and didn’t have his best stuff, but closed the day with a 26-foot birdie to shoot 67.
“To finish it off that way,” Rahm said, “it always feels like you’re stealing.”
Rahm one-putted the last four holes and made 116 feet in putts in the opening round.
Rahm went from a marathon-Sunday finish at the Masters to competing in the RBC Heritage the following week. He took last week off, which included a celebration at home with family and friends, but said it wasn’t enough time off.
“I wish I could have rested a little more, but it is the life we signed up for,” he said.
It’s certainly the life for Eric Cole. Growing up, Cole was like so many kids dreaming of playing on the PGA Tour someday. The only difference was not many kids can count their father as a former PGA Tour winner and their mother as a U.S. Women’s Amateur champion and veteran of the LPGA Tour.
Cole, the son of South African golfer Bobby Cole, who once held the 54-hole lead at the British Open, and Laura Baugh, a celebrated golfer in her own right, finally made it to the PGA Tour as a 34-year-old rookie and he’s been having a solid season, including finishing second at the Honda Classic in March.
Cole is off to a fast start at the Mexico Open, shooting 6-under 65, tied with Stephen Jaeger and Taylor Pendrith.
Cole won more than 50 times on golf’s mini tours and spent a couple of years on the Korn Ferry Tour before making it to the big leagues. After a bogey at his first hole, No. 10, in the opening round in Mexico, Cole rebounded with seven birdies, including stuffing his approach shot from 193 yards to inside 2 feet for a tap-in birdie at 16.
“I hit my irons really well so I didn’t really get myself out of position much,” said Cole, who gained more than four strokes on the field with his approach game.
Jaeger, who finished T-15 in this event a year ago, has made 13 cuts in 16 starts this season but only has record two top-25 finishes. He started his day on the back nine and made birdie on four of his first seven holes, including draining a 20-foot putt at 16. His iron game was sharp as he hit 17 of 18 greens on Thursday.
“It definitely could have been lower, I hit some edges there today,” Jaeger said of putts that just wouldn’t drop. “I’m never going to complain about 6 under.”
Pendrith finished a season-best T-13 last week at the Zurich Classic of New Orleans, a two-man team event. But in individual stroke-play events, Pendrith had missed the cut at three of his last five events, and finished T-69 and T-70 on the two occasions when he played the weekend. In short, he’s been firmly planted on the struggle bus but not in Round One.
“Everything was kind of clicking,” he said, including his putter at No. 8 when he drained a 35-foot birdie putt.
Mexico’s Raul Pereda, who made his PGA Tour debut, shot a bogey-free 65 by following advice from Mike Blackburn, his golf coach at Jacksonville University, who told him to enjoy every shot.
“That was my goal today, just live it every single shot of them,” he said.