Alex Noren continued his impressive start to the year on the PGA Tour as he earned a share of the first-round lead on a tough day for scoring at the Honda Classic.
The majority of the high-quality field struggled to get to grips with the blustery conditions and a hard and fast layout at PGA National, with Noren and Webb Simpson leading the way on four under while only 20 of the 144 starters broke the par of 70 on day one.
Tiger Woods did well to grind out a 70 despite a double-bogey seven on his card having been tied for the early lead at one stage after two early birdies, while Rory McIlroy also made a bright start but went on to return a disappointing 72 after finding water at the last.
Noren also faltered at the long 18th – his ninth – when he dumped a wedge into sand and could not get up and down, but that proved his only blemish of the round as he found his rhythm on the front nine.
Alex Noren joins Claude Harmon III at the Sky Cart to reflect on his superb four-under 66 which gave him a share of the early lead at the Honda Classic
The veteran Swede, who lost out to Jason Day in a play-off at the Farmers Insurance Open last month, holed from over 30 feet for a bonus birdie at the second and picked up another shot at the long next before playing one of the shots of the day at the sixth.
Noren found a fairway bunker from the tee, but he produced a stunning second from the sand to three feet to set up his fourth birdie, and he added a fifth at his final hole with a confident putt from six feet.
Former US Open champion Simpson claimed a share of the clubhouse lead when he matched Noren’s 66 with a solid five-birdie opener, while reigning FedExCup champion Justin Thomas is just a shot behind along with 2015 runner-up Daniel Berger.
Louis Oosthuizen birdied three of his last four holes to join the group on three-under par, while European Ryder Cup star Thomas Pieters also performed well in the tougher, afternoon conditions as he carded a creditable 69.
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Woods is in a tie for 21st alongside the likes of European No 1 Tommy Fleetwood and a rejuvenated Graeme McDowell, while defending champion Rickie Fowler needed a late birdie to salvage a 71.
Masters champion Sergio Garcia, making his first PGA Tour start of the year, mixed four birdies with six bogeys – including four in six holes early on – in an erratic 72 as he looks to fine-tune his game with Augusta just six weeks away.
Claude Harmon and Nick Dougherty look at the highs and lows of Rory McIlroy's opening 72 at the Honda Classic, which included an expensive last hole
McIlroy made a confident start with birdies at the third and fourth, but missed greens at six and seven resulted in bogeys before he pulled off a series of excellent par saves to stay within four of the lead.
But McIlroy found the hazard at the last as he went for the green with a long-range three-wood, and his fourth sailed over the back of the green as he stumbled to a frustrating seven and joined Garcia on two over.
Meanwhile, two-time major winner Martin Kaymer emerged as a possible doubt for the Masters after he fired a 75 and then withdrew from the tournament due to a wrist injury.