KAPALUA, Hawaii (Reuters) - South Korean Bae Sang-moon did well to keep his off-course distractions largely in the background as he charged into contention for the Hyundai Tournament of Champions with a sizzling display on Friday.
Bae, who is getting legal advice to help resolve a requirement that he return home by the month’s end to complete military service, piled up eight birdies and a lone bogey on the way to a seven-under-par 66 in the opening round.
That left him a stroke behind pace-setting American Russell Henley, who produced bogey-free golf on a hot, humid and blustery day at the picturesque Kapalua Resort on the Hawaiian island of Maui.
Scott Stallings, Robert Streb, Ben Martin, Patrick Reed and Jimmy Walker kept the American flag flying high by carding 67s while Australian John Senden, who eagled the par-five last, was among a group on 68 in the eighth event on the 2014-15 PGA Tour.
Bae, who booked his place in the elite winners-only field of 34 at Kapalua with victory at the season-opening Frys.com Open in October, made a fast start with six birdies on his outward nine, including five in a row from the fourth.
Though he bogeyed the par-three 11th, he picked up further shots at the 14th and 15th to set the early pace before being overtaken by Henley late in the day.
“I was in the zone,” Bae, a two-time winner on the PGA Tour, told reporters. “I played really, really good the front nine. I felt comfortable and the ball striking was really good.
“These greens are hard to read. I need my caddie’s help... and it worked good today.”
According to Yonhap news agency, Bae had his overseas travel permit extension request rejected by the Military Manpower Administration in South Korea, a move which has distracted the golfer.
“Actually (it’s) a little bit hard to focus on my game because I’ve got a little trouble, but I try to split things,” Bae, 28, said about keeping off-course problems away from his golf.
“I don’t want to think about it, the other things, on the course. I think I did really good today.”
Bae’s manager, Thomas Lee, told Reuters the golfer would not make any further comment on his military service until the issue was resolved, saying: “It’s very sensitive right now.”
Masters champion Bubba Watson opened with a 70 while fellow American Zach Johnson launched his title defense with a 68.
Editing by John O'Brien