LA QUINTA, CALIFORNIA – JANUARY 22: Sungjae Im of South Korea plays a shot on the 11th hole during the second round of The American Express tournament on the Stadium course at PGA West on January 22, 2021 in La Quinta, California. (Photo by Harry How/Getty Images)

Korea’s Byeong Hun An showed his fondness towards the Arnold Palmer Invitational presented by Mastercard by shooting a solid 4-under 68 to lie in tied fourth place after the first round on Thursday.

The 29-year-old, who has made the halfway cut in his last five starts at Bay Hill, enjoyed three successive birdies on his homeward nine to end the day two back of co-leaders Rory McIlory and Corey Conners, who shot matching 66s. Bryson DeChambeau, the reigning U.S. Open champion, was a further stroke back in third place.

An’s countryman, Sungjae Im, also enjoyed a return to the prestigious PGA TOUR tournament with a solid 69 highlighted by an eagle on the par 5 16th hole. Im finished top-three in the last two years here.

Asia’s other representatives endured mixed days with India’s Anirban Lahiri battling to a 72 to share 43rd position while Chinese Taipei’s C.T. Pan returned a 74. Japanese star Hideki Matsuyama and Thailand’s Jazz Janewattananond carded 75s

An, chasing his first PGA TOUR win, turned in 35 with three birdies against two bogeys before sinking putts of eight feet, 11 feet and four feet on Hole Nos. 4, 5 and 6 to shoot up the leaderboard. He finished T10 here in 2019 for his best result at the tournament.

“I hit it good and putted good. Overall I am happy that I didn’t hit any balls in the water. I think that’s a big thing here, there’s some water out there that’s in play, but I didn’t lose any balls and I made some good birdie putts. So I was able to keep the momentum going on the back nine. Had a good save on the last,” said the former U.S. Amateur winner.

Since switching to new coach Sean Foley, An has shown steady progress, and enjoyed a top-10 at The American Express earlier this year. In four starts to date in 2021, he has not missed a cut, as opposed to missing five in seven tournaments last fall.

“I struggled a little bit off the tee in the last couple of months but it’s been a lot tighter. I’m giving myself more birdie chances and my wedge game has been pretty good. Everything was working, it’s not like one particular thing,” said An.

Im, currently ranked 22nd on the FedExCup points list, nailed a seven iron approach from 193 yards to nine feet on the 16th hole for his eagle. He made putts of 17 feet and 22 feet at the fourth and seventh holes to stay on the leaders’ heels.

“I have good memories of this tournament, so every time I come back here, I just feel happy and comfortable. I can enjoy my game because I always think about all the happy moments,” said Im, who has two top-10s this season and has not missed a cut in 2021.

Despite hitting only nine greens in regulation, Im scrambled well to drop only one bogey. “I hit some good drivers and my irons are getting better. Unfortunately, I didn’t take those chances for birdies. I think I played well.”

McIlroy, a former FedExCup winner and World No. 1, is chasing his first win on the PGA TOUR since the 2019 WGC-HSBC Champions in China. After making the turn with a sluggish 35, the Northern Irishman caught fire with five consecutive birdies on his back nine to grab his 16th first round lead/co-lead.

“It was good. 66 is a great way to start but the first few holes were a little slow going and I made a really good birdie on 14 and that sort of got the round going. The two 2s on the back nine were great. Coming off last week where I really struggled on the par-3s, and today I played them in 3-under par, so quite a turnaround. I played well and hit some really good shots, some good drives and I saw a lot of really positive signs out there today, which is really encouraging,” said McIlroy, who holds 18 PGA TOUR victories.

 First-Round Notes – Thursday, March 4, 2021

Weather: Mostly sunny. High of 74. Wind NNW 9-13 mph.

First-Round Leaderboard

Rory McIlroy                    66 (-6)

Corey Conners                66 (-6)

Bryson DeChambeau      67 (-5)

Jason Kokrak                   68 (-4)

Byeong Hun An                68 (-4)

Sebastian Munoz              68 (-4)

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