Ripper GC captain Cameron Smith is one round closer to claiming the LIV Golf individual champion crown. His teammate Marc Leishman is one round closer to returning to the winner’s circle.
Leishman continued his recent surge of good play with a five-under 65 to lead after Friday’s first round of LIV Golf Jeddah.
A trio of past winners at Royal Greens Golf and Country Club are one stroke back – Dustin Johnson, Harold Varner III and defending Jeddah champion Brooks Koepka.
Meanwhile, Smith remains projected to win the season-long individual title and the $18-million bonus. He shot an even-par 70 and is tied for 22nd with 10 other players, including his closest pursuer, Talor Gooch.
The other contender for the season-long title is Bryson DeChambeau, who is tied for 14th after a 69. DeChambeau must finish in the top three to have any shot at finishing No 1. Gooch and DeChambeau remain projected for No 2 and No 3, respectively.
The projections on the team competition, however, favour DeChambeau’s Crushers. Tied with the Rippers on the leaderboard at six under, the Crushers are projected to overtake Johnson’s 4Aces GC as the No 1 seed going into next week’s Team Championship in Miami. The 4Aces are one shot back, tied for third with Fireballs GC.
Leishman has raised his level of performances in recent starts, with podium finishes in London (third) and Chicago (second). The credit goes to his putting stroke, with recent work on a putting mirror and string line helping to improve his alignment.
“It certainly helps with making putts when you’re aiming where you think you are,” said Leishman, who is seeking his first individual win since 2020, although he did win a two-man team event with Smith in 2021. “I’m glad that it was something so simple and we didn’t have to rebuild the putting stroke.”
A year ago, Johnson arrived at Jeddah having already secured the individual champion title. This time, he’s in seventh but has an outside shot at finishing third and claiming the $4-million bonus. But he’ll must win the tournament to have any chance.
“Obviously I would have liked to have played a little better individually coming into here, but it’s golf. You can’t play good all the time. But I still try to,” said Johnson, a two-time winner on Royal Greens at the PIF Saudi International. “Still want to have a really good week this week. This is a big event. There’s a lot on the line.”
Varner III won the PIF Saudi International last year when he holed a 90-foot eagle putt on the last hole. On Friday, he led the field with six birdies in tough scoring conditions of high temperatures and wind.
Koepka won LIV Golf Invitational Jeddah last year in a three-hole playoff. The highlight of Friday’s round was an eagle hole-out at the par-four 9th. Like Johnson, he has a chance to sneak into the No 3 bonus-paying spot by winning the tournament, depending on how DeChambeau fares.
“I feel comfortable on this golf course,” the Smash GC captain said. “I feel good about it. I enjoy playing in the wind. When it’s very difficult, I enjoy that.”
Leishman certainly is enjoying his form right now. It could be a huge week for the all-Australian Rippers if he can claim the tournament title, Smith wins the season-long crown, and the Rippers top the team leaderboard on Sunday.
Said Leishman with a smile: “It would be a fun plane ride to Miami.”
Photo: Charles Laberge/LIV Golf