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Akshay Bhatia opens with a 63 to lead Texas Open by 3. Rory McIlroy is 6 back

SAN ANTONIO (AP) — Akshay Bhatia rode the rare experience of knowing a PGA Tour course with a sublime day with his irons for a 9-under 63 on Thursday, giving him a three-shot lead in the Valero Texas Open and taking a small step toward a potential trip to the Masters.

The Texas Open is the last chance for players to qualify for Augusta National by winning. The 22-year-old Bhatia won the Barracuda Championship last summer, but it was held opposite the British Open and didn't count toward a Masters invitation.

And that's thinking too far ahead for Bhatia, anyway.

“Doesn't matter to me,” Bhatia said of his lead. “I'm excited to go and sleep. It's been a long day, it's been very hot. I'm just trying to do the things that my mental coach and I have been talking about and I'm not trying to win the golf tournament today. But it's just nice having a nice day.”

Brendon Todd birdied four of his last five holes for a 66 to join Justin Lower, who played in the morning. Neither of them are in the Masters yet.

It wasn't a bad day for Rory McIlroy, fresh off a visit to swing coach Butch Harmon in Las Vegas and two days at Augusta National before his final tournament ahead of the one major keeping him from the career Grand Slam.

He also played bogey-free, but managed only three birdies. He failed to birdie both par 5s on the back nine at the TPC San Antonio, missing a 3-footer on the 14th.

“I think it's the first round I've had without a bogey in quite a while,” McIlroy said. “My game over the last couple months has been quite volatile, so to go out there and play a solid round of golf in pretty tricky conditions, pretty happy with it.”

Jordan Spieth had another edge-of-the-seat performance. He hit his tee shot out-of-bounds on the par-5 14th and took double bogey, putting him at 4 over and in danger of missing his third straight cut for the first time since the fall of 2020.

He followed that with a hole-in-one with a 7-iron on No. 15. He went from the bunker on the 17th to 12 feet for another birdie and salvaged a 73.

“I’m playing so much better than I’ve been scoring and it doesn’t like look like it,” Spieth said. “It’s hard to explain. I’ve played way worse and had consecutive top 10s than the missed cuts that I’ve had. It’s just very bizarre.

“I got a couple nice breaks late that maybe make me feel like the game is not as hard as it’s been feeling.”

Max Homa and Cognizant Classic winner Austin Eckroat were in the group at 68.

This is Bhatia's second year on tour. He played a mixture of Korn Ferry Tour and PGA Tour events before locking up his card, but the Texas Open is one that he played twice before.

“This is my third time here. Not many golf courses on the tour have been my third time,” Bhatia said. “I just played really solid. It was just a good day.”

Only two of his nine birdies were outside 10 feet — both were in the 15-foot range — and he finished his round with a greenside bunker shot to tap-in range on the 18th.

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AP golf: https://apnews.com/hub/golf