Eagle-birdie finish boosts Bhatia to first-round lead

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Eagle-birdie finish boosts Bhatia to first-round lead

Akshay Bhatia had a sensational eagle-birdie finish to top the leaderboard after the opening round at the Rocket Mortgage Classic, but he knows no lead is safe at the Detroit Golf Club.

Bhatia chipped in for eagle from 83 feet on the 17th hole and ended with a birdie for an eight-under 64 on Thursday (Friday AEST), giving him a one-shot cushion that isn’t comfortable.

“It’s always nice to finish like that,” the American said. “This tournament’s always kind of a birdie fest, so birdies and eagles help a lot.”

Tony Finau set the tournament record, winning at 26-under two years ago, and fellow American Rickie Fowler needed to win in a play-off last year when 24-under wasn’t good enough through 72 holes.

The 22-year-old Bhatia, the Texas Open winner in April for his second PGA Tour title, was six-under over his last six holes in the first round. He tied for fifth last week in Connecticut, where he was in the final group that was disrupted by climate protesters storming the 18th green.

Taylor Montgomery and Michael Kim were a stroke further back.

Montgomery had a six-under 30 on his front nine and added one more birdie on the back in a bogey-free round. He was pleasantly surprised by his performance, playing for the first time since withdrawing from the Byron Nelson in early May due to injured shoulders.

“I was more nervous today than I have been on the golf course in forever just because I felt so unprepared,” Montgomery said, adding he had played just four times in two months.

Fowler shot 66, closing with three straight birdies.

Will Zalatoris, Aaron Rai, Eric Cole and Matti Schmid also were at 66.

Three Australians are right in the mix, with Aaron Baddeley, Cameron Davis and Min Woo Lee all carding 68s to finish their round at four under.

The event includes just 10 of the world’s top 50 players, with Bhatia ranked 31st.

Tom Kim, the best-ranked player in the field at No.16, lost in a play-off to Scottie Scheffler last week and may have shown signs of fatigue in his ninth consecutive tournament.

Kim shot a 73 and will have to bounce back with a strong round to make the cut on a short course with receptive greens ripe for birdies.

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