LA QUINTA, CALIFORNIA – JANUARY 21: Byeong Hun An of South Korea as he finishes his round on the 18th green during the first round of The American Express tournament on the Jack Nicklaus Tournament Course at PGA West on January 21, 2021 in La Quinta, California. (Photo by Harry How/Getty Images)

Korea’s Byeong Hyun An got his New Year off to a near perfect start by firing a 7-under 65 in the first round of The American Express golf tournament to lie one shot off the lead at PGA West at La Quinta, California on Thursday.

Chasing a first PGA TOUR win, the 29-year-old An kept the bogeys off his card and rattled home seven birdies on the Nicklaus Tournament Course as his recent switch to new swing coach, Sean Foley paid immediate rewards with his lowest round to date in the 2020-21 Season.

Si Woo Kim, the 2017 PLAYERS Champion, made it a day for the Koreans by posting a 66, courtesy of one eagle and four birdies, at the Stadium Course while Sungjae Im and K.H. Lee both registered matching 68s.

India’s Anirban Lahiri, playing at the Stadium Course, opened his week with a 68 highlighted by five birdies against a lone bogey while Chinese Taipei’s C.T. Pan and Xinjun Zhang of China shot matching 70s also on the Stadium Course in the tournament which is being played over two courses at PGA West for the first two rounds.

An, who has three career runner-up finishes on TOUR, hit 11 fairways and 15 greens in regulation as he made light work of his first competitive round of 2021 following a six-week break which was spent working with Foley. He trails Brandon Hagy, a late replacement for Jon Rahm in the field, who carded a 64 highlighted by 10 birdies.

“Just one of those steady rounds and at the end, you shoot 7-under par, so everything worked. I never thought about the score all day and most of the birdies were probably inside three feet. I made one putt that was about 18 feet for birdie on the par-3 and that’s about it. I hit some great shots, and I didn’t really mis-hit any of the golf shots,” said An, who is a former U.S. Amateur champion.

An said he has put in a lot of work on his long game with Foley since December, whom he got to know when the swing coach worked with former FedExCup champion and world No. 1 Justin Rose at his home base in Lake Nona in Orlando.

“I’ve always been a steady player. I was hitting it pretty decent but I struggled a little bit with my long game, so I tried to tidy it up with my new coach, Sean Foley, and then it’s paying off. I’m hitting it a lot better and I’m hitting some good shots. It’s good to see some results. So yeah, we’re happy where we’re going right now and hopefully it gets better,” he said.

An, who played in the Presidents Cup for the International Team in 2019,  knows he needs three more low rounds if he is to break his duck on TOUR. “It shows how tough it is to win out here, I think. I had three chances, I played pretty well, but I need some luck and also need to some things need to drop or hit it a little better,” said An.

“I’m not too worried about it and if I hit it like today and putt like today, then I’m sure I can get a win this year.”

Unlike An, Kim, 24, already has two wins under his belt including the TOUR’s flagship event, THE PLAYERS Championship which he won in 2017 and became the tournament’s youngest ever winner. After finishing tied 25th in last week’s Sony Open in Hawaii, Kim put in more hours on the practice putting green at PGA West which paid off handsomely.

“I felt pretty comfortable. Last week, I didn’t putt very well and I just focused on practicing harder and I putted pretty well. That’s why I think I saved par a lot, like, 15 to 20 feet putts which I made for par,” said Kim, who made four par saves during his opening round.

First-Round Notes – Thursday, January 21, 2021

Weather: Mostly cloudy with a high of 75. Wind SE 5-10 mph.

First-Round Leaderboard

Brandon Hagy      64 (-8)    NT

Byeong Hun An    65 (-7)    NT

Si Woo Kim          66 (-6)    SC

Martin Laird         66 (-6)    NT

Max Homa           66 (-6)    NT

Other Asian Scores

Anirban Lahiri     68 (-4)  SC

Sungjae Im          68 (-4)  NT

Xinjun Zhang      70 (-2)  SC

C.T. Pan               70 (-2) SC

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