WHITE SULPHUR SPRINGS -- On Thursday during the first round of A Military Tribute at The Greenbrier, spectators saw fire and they saw rain.
The fire came from red-hot Webb Simpson and the rain was about the only thing that could temporarily cool him off.
Simpson fired a bogey-free, 9-under-par 61, riding a chip-in eagle on the par-5 12th hole and a miraculous par save on the par-4 13th to stake claim to a one-shot lead over South Korea's Whee Kim after one round of play. Joaquin Niemann, a 19-year-old Chilean in his first season as a professional, finished with a 7-under-par 63, good enough for the low-round of the morning wave and solo possession of third place.
The round was delayed one hour and 54 minutes by inclement weather with the last groups finishing as darkness set in.
Simpson was on 59-watch as he worked his way through the back nine but hit it into the left rough twice on the par-5, 17th hole and had to settle for par. A birdie-birdie finish on the last two holes would have been enough.
Still, it was a heck of a start for a Tour representative of The Greenbrier who has enjoyed a resurgent season with a win already this season at The Players Championship. Thursday represented his 10th round under 63 on the PGA Tour but his first-round 61 was his best individual round on Tour.
"I've had a good last couple days here after a week off, so I was confident," Simpson said. "But you never shoot 9-under thinking before the round, 'Today is going to be my day.' It was a good solid start, a couple under early, then hit that stretch nine, 10, 11 and 12, 14. You know, 13 was one of those miracle pars, should've made bogey there."
"Delighted with the round, great start for round one."
After chipping in on the 12th for the second year in a row in the first round, Simpson sent an errant drive right on 13 before the horn sounded. Once play resumed a tough shot nearly turned into disaster as Simpson punched out across the fairway and luckily hit a golf cart, saving the ball from tumbling into Howard's Creek.
"I apologized to the guy then thanked him for not moving," Simpson quipped.
Still, he faced a tough 123-yard shot with a lie in the thick rough. But Simpson calmly struck the approach to within 5-feet, 10-inches of the hole and drained the putt in a crucial, momentum-saving swing. He credited the delay for helping with the recovery.
"I hit a poor tee shot on 13 up into the right trees," Simpson explained. "I think my rhythm got a little fast and it gave me a chance to hit 30 or so balls to work on it."
Kim, also in the afternoon wave of players, also started on fire, birdieing No. 2, No. 3, No. 4, and No. 5. Bogeys at No. 6 and No. 7 slowed his progress, but he answered with five birdies in the next seven holes and finished with an 8-under 62, a shot ahead of 19-year-old Chilean Joaquin Nieman.
Several of the premier names in the field also find themselves still in contention. Phil Mickelson, a five-time major winner, came in with a 4-under-par 64. Two-time Masters champion Bubba Watson settled for a 2-under-par 68 after taking a double bogey on the eighth hole, his 17th. Keegan Bradley, a former PGA Championship winner, is in a tie for fifth after carding a five-under-par 65. Xander Schauffele, the defending champion finished tied with Mickelson at 4 under and Tony Finau, the Las Vegas favorite coming into Thursday, finished at 3 under.
Niemann, though in the infancy of his budding career, is no stranger to going low on the Old White TPC after shooting a final-round, 6-under 64 to conclude his tournament a year ago as an amateur.
That finish helped him to a tie for 29th, but his aspirations are much bigger this time around after one-upping himself on Thursday.
"I started pretty good, I made a couple good birdies in the start of the round," Niemann said. "I was 6-under after 10. After that I thought I was going really low. My game was feeling really good and my putter was good."
Niemann turned pro in April after being ranked No. 1 in the World Golf Amateur Ranking from May 2017 until he turned pro in April and already has three top-10 finishes on the PGA Tour.
And while Thursday's round is certainly no guarantee of a fourth, it was a heck of a start toward it.
Niemann started on the back nine and registered five birdies out of the gate and rang up a couple more on the front nine coming back in, making no bogeys along the way.
Kelly Kraft shot a 6-under to claim solo possession of fourth place with J.J. Henry, Chad Campbell and Jason Kokrak tied with Bradley at 5 under for fifth.
This article is written by Ryan Pritt from The Charleston Gazette, W.Va. and was legally licensed via the Tribune Content Agency through the NewsCred publisher network. Please direct all licensing questions to firstname.lastname@example.org.