Christiaan Bezuidenhout began the PGA Tour’s American Express tournament at La Quinta with a nine-under 63 on Thursday.
The South African, who had nine birdies, is one stroke behind the co-leaders, American Zach Johnson Sweden’s Alex Noren.
Two-time Major winner Johnson had 10 birdies on the La Quinta course, one of three in use over the first three days of the tournament in the California desert east of Los Angeles.
After stringing together six straight birdies from the 4th through the 9th, Johnson rolled in an eight-foot putt for his final birdie of the day at the 17th to take the solo lead.
Noren joined him after a more up-and-down day at La Quinta, where he was seven under after his first seven holes thanks to five birdies and an eagle, then hit out of bounds to take a double-bogey at his 8th hole, the par-four 17th.
Five birdies coming in, including two to cap his round at the 8th and 9th, pushed him to a share of the lead in pursuit of a first PGA Tour title to go with his 10 European Tour victories.
Johnson, the 2007 Masters champion who claimed the last of his 12 Tour titles at the 2015 Open, missed the cut last week in Hawaii. But he said he was excited by the prospect of a season more focused on his game.
“Put a lot of good work in as of late,” said Johnson, whose US team fell to Europe in Rome in last year’s Ryder Cup.
“Actually been a lot of normal golf work, given what happened last year with what I was responsible for, which was awesome. Now it’s time to get back to work. I’ve enjoyed the work. I’ve enjoyed the sweat.”
Johnson said his day at low-scoring La Quinta was pretty straightforward.
“Got off to a good start. Gained some momentum. Hit a lot of shots in the middle of the club face. When I had loft in my hand I was able to be aggressive, which is always key. Obviously, I putted good.”
Noren, meanwhile, had a sense of whiplash but was pleased with the ultimate outcome.
“I don’t think I’ve been seven under after seven, and then I hit it out of bounds on my 8th hole,” he said. “Played a little worse in the middle … Then came down with five birdies on the last, I don’t know, six. So I’m super happy.”
Like Bezuidenhout, Rico Hoey, who was born in the Philippines but grew up in southern California, also had nine birdies in his 63.
Another nine players were tied on 64, a group that included world No 5 Xander Schauffele and sixth-ranked Patrick Cantlay.
Of that group, Scott Stallings and Hayden Springer notched their eight-under efforts on the tougher Stadium Course, which will host the final round on Sunday.
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