ATLANTA (Reuters) - Henrik Stenson, who has not won a title this year, put himself in pole position for a $11.48 million jackpot by firing a seven-under 63 on Thursday for a two-shot lead after the first round of the Tour Championship.
Stenson, who claimed the FedExCup playoffs bonanza two years ago by winning this season-ending event, posted six birdies along with an eagle-three on the ninth hole at East Lake Golf Club, where the four-event series culminates.
The 39-year-old Swede topped a leaderboard that featured other international players including Englishman Paul Casey, who was sole second after a 65, and Northern Irishman Rory McIlroy, who shared third with British Open champion Zach Johnson at 66.
World number one Jason Day of Australia, winner of four of his last six events including the PGA Championship and last week’s BMW Championship, started with three birdies in a row, but a triple-bogey at the fifth sent him on his way to 69.
“It was in the unknown,” Day said about his tee shot at the fifth that disappeared out of bounds to the right. “I got off to a good start today, but ... it’s one of those swings, it kind of just got away from me a little bit.”
Jordan Spieth, who dominated the first half of the year with wins at the Masters and U.S. Open, registered a 68 to join five other players at two under par.
Stenson, who has three second-place finishes on the PGA Tour this year and another on the European Tour, pounded his tee shots, ripped approaches with laser-like accuracy and putted the lightning-fast greens with a deft touch.
“All in all a very good day both ball striking and short game and putting,” said Stenson, who relied on his three-wood to keep the ball in the fairway. “So, very pleased with the start and couldn’t have asked for anything more.”
An overcast day produced some late afternoon rain that seemed to cool off Stenson, who reached eight-under by the 12th hole but finished with five pars and his lone bogey at the 17th.
“That tends to happen when we get a slight drizzle,” said Stenson, who might have to contend with more of the same as rain is predicted for Friday.
World number two McIlroy, who missed a chunk of the middle of the year after injuring his ankle playing soccer with friends, was pleased to be in the thick of the chase.
“It would be great to finish off this PGA Tour season on a high, with a win,” said the 26-year-old McIlroy, who stood 11th on the FedExCup list and needs ‘help’ from other players to finish on top, even with a Tour Championship victory.
“Whether that means winning the FedExCup at the end of it, that’s not in my hands. All I can do is try to win this tournament.”
Stenson occupied the driver’s seat at East Lake as the initial 30-man field for the elite tournament shrank to 28 after 2010 British Open winner Louis Oosthuizen of South Africa withdrew after 13 holes due to a hamstring injury.
Jim Furyk, the 2010 FedExCup winner, pulled out before the tournament because of a wrist injury.
Runner-up finishes at The Barclays and Deutsche Bank Championship FedExCup events had pushed Stenson into the top five on the points list, meaning a victory in Atlanta would clinch the overall grand prize for the Swede.
Reporting by Larry Fine; Editing by Mark Lamport-Stokes