Five Zozo Championship storylines that played out overnight: Japan’s Hiroshi Iwata leads and eagles land

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The PGA Tour landed on the other side of the world this week as the Zozo Championship – which was played at Sherwood Country Club in Lake Sherwood, California, in 2020 for one year only as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic – returned to Japan. It’s more insomnia golf than coffee golf, so for those who didn’t catch the action, we’re here to catch you up.

Just like last week, there’s no cut in the Zozo Championship. Players are guaranteed four rounds at Accordia Golf Narashino, located just east of Tokyo. Want a reminder that will give you chills? This is the same course where Tiger Woods earned his 82nd PGA Tour title in 2019 to tie Sam Snead’s record. Cue the flashbacks.

1. Welcome back, Hiroshi

Unfamiliar with the name Hiroshi Iwata? It’s because the Japanese player hasn’t made a PGA Tour start since 2017.

On Thursday, the 40-year-old opened the Zozo Championship with a 7-under 63 that included three closing birdies. He’s currently one shot ahead of Chile’s Joaquin Niemann and compatriot Hideki Matsuyama, a local hero after his Masters victory last spring.

So who is Iwata? He’s a three-time winner on the Japan Golf Tour, with the most recent victory coming at The Crowns in May. Iwata held membership on the PGA Tour in 2016, making the cut in 14 of 29 events. His best finish was a T4 at the AT&T Pebble Beach Pro-Am, but perhaps his most notable Tour moment came in the second round of the 2015 PGA Championship at Whistling Straits, when he fired a 63. He ultimately finished T-21 that week.

2. Putting tip pays off for Joaquin Niemann

Joaquin Niemann, Zozo Championship
Joaquin Niemann, Zozo Championship

Chile’s Joaquin Niemann (center) walks on the 16th hole during the first round of the PGA ZOZO Championship golf tournament at the Narashino Country Club in Inzai, Chiba prefecture on October 21, 2021. (Photo by TAKASHI AOYAMA/AFP via Getty Images)

Niemann’s day could have gone south quickly after his foot slipped on the first tee while hitting his opening drive. The talented Chilean salvaged a par there, made birdie on the next hole and was off.

“I think making a 4 there was huge, gave me more confidence in knowing that I could have a good day,” he said. “And after that I started playing great, hitting fairways, hitting good shots into the green, making good putts, which is always nice.”

With three birdies on the back, Niemann briefly had a share of the lead before Iwata pulled away. He’s employing a new putting tip that he has worked on with his coach that involves squaring his right should before striking the ball, the idea being that he can get his putter more inside this way.

3. Fleetwood lands a pair of eagles

ZOZO Championship - Round One
ZOZO Championship - Round One

Tommy Fleetwood of England waves to fans on the 10th green during the first round of the ZOZO Championship at Accordia Golf Narashino Country Club on October 21, 2021 in Inzai, Chiba, Japan. (Photo by Atsushi Tomura/Getty Images)

Scrambling early then pulling it together seemed to be a bit of a theme around Accordia on Thursday. Fleetwood, whose first post-Ryder Cup start came last week at the CJ Cup (where he finished T38), bogeyed two of his first three holes (starting on No. 10) but still managed to play his way to 3 under for the day. A pair of eagles went a long way.

“I was 2 over playing my ninth hole, which is the 18th,” Fleetwood said. “Get eagle there and then give it back with an absolutely shocker off the first tee and it was just up and down really until kind of just leveled out. I hit two amazing iron shots on 3 and 5 that were tap-in 2s on the par 3s, which is a bonus. Then holed a bunker shot and like, yeah, before you know it I had a score going, which is great really.”

Fleetwood’s second eagle came on the par-5 sixth hole – a hole-out from a greenside bunker, no less – and got him to 3 under for the day, where he stayed.

“Hopefully put a couple of things right this afternoon in practice and go out tomorrow and continue on where I started, hit the ball a bit better and make some putts over the week,” he said.

4. The Chasers

Zozo Championship 2021
Zozo Championship 2021

Rickie Fowler on the 12th hole during the first round of the Zozo Championship at the Narashino Country Club in Inzai, Chiba prefecture on October 21, 2021. Photo by Atsushi Tomura/Getty Images

Among those still in the hunt after a round at Accordia was Brendan Steele. He’s the highest American on the leaderboard after a round of 4-under 66 that included an eagle of his own off a hole-out from 83 yards on the par-4 10th, his first hole of the day. He followed with birdie on No. 11.

“So 3 under through two is always a good way to start your trip over here,” Steele said.

Another American, Cameron Tringale, is close behind at 3 under.

As for how some of the bigger names fared? You’ll have to keep scrolling down the leaderboard to find Rickie Fowler, whose even-par 70 left him six shots back but not out of it. Fowler’s day was derailed by a triple bogey at No. 17 but he rebounded with birdie at No. 18.

Collin Morikawa is T42 at 1 over.

5. Gold-medal vibes

Xander Schauffele, Zozo Championship
Xander Schauffele, Zozo Championship

Xander Schauffele of the United States acknowledges fans after holing out on the 18th green during the first round of the ZOZO Championship at Accordia Golf Narashino Country Club on October 21, 2021 in Inzai, Chiba, Japan. (Photo by Atsushi Tomura/Getty Images)

The last time that Xander Schauffele was in Japan, he left with a significant piece of hardware: the Olympic gold medal. His opening round on Thursday wasn’t quite gold-medal worthy, though. Despite starting with three birdies in his opening five holes, Schauffele cooled off as the day went on and bogeys at Nos. 15 and 16 contributed to him falling back to even-par 70 for the day.

That performance didn’t seem to bother the crowds, however, because they turned out in force to see the Olympian.

“It was nice to get some claps when you make a birdie putt or even a par putt,” Schauffele said. “The fans were awesome, they were clapping sort of the whole way through the tee boxes and everything. I think they’re happy that we’re here and we’re definitely happy that they’re here as well.”

Despite being six shots off the pace, Schauffele didn’t feel he was out of it after one round. Post-round, he was headed back to the range to make some adjustments.

“I can’t expect to win hitting the way I did the last 12 holes, so I’ll have to go and find something on the range here.

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