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Opening-round leaders show ability to bounce back at LIV Las Vegas

Redemption on the golf course can be a slow process. It can also seemingly happen overnight.

The opening round of LIV Golf Las Vegas is a good example.

Paul Casey and Harold Varner III are perched atop the leaderboard after shooting 7-under 63s during Thursday’s LIV debut at Las Vegas Country Club.

Casey is making his way back after the most difficult season of his professional career. Varner is moving on from last week’s effort in Mexico, where the veteran found himself at the bottom of the 54-player field.

“As soon as the last putt went in last week, that was probably the best thing that ever happened,” Varner said of his finish at Mayakoba, where he finished at 14-over 227, 26 shots behind winner Joaquin Niemann. “It was over.”

Varner arrived in Las Vegas ready to prove last week was a mirage. It happened quickly with birdies his first two holes. He finished with seven overall on a clean scorecard.

“I expect to play well. I want to play well,” Varner said. “When I made birdies, it was like, ‘All right, let’s go birdie the next one.’ It’s like riding a bike. Once you get in the groove, it’s fun.”

Casey had eight birdies and one bogey. He said all the little things Thursday added up to a great score.

“I had confidence with the driver, had very good distance control today, and then I started to see some lines on the greens,” Casey said. “They’re simple little things individually, but I’ve not been able to put any of them together for quite a while. So the fact that all these simple little things were coming together was beautiful.”

That’s not something Casey said in 2023. He finished fourth in Mexico in February and never came close to another top-10 finish the rest of the season. It was a startling year for such an accomplished player, with three PGA Tour wins and 15 European tour victories on his resume.

“Last year was disappointing, other than the team aspect,” Casey said. “I love being part of the Crushers, but I don’t feel I’ve done my bit contributing and having that individual success.”

It’s a packed leaderboard behind Casey and Varner, with 21 players within four shots of the lead. Bubba Watson, Matthew Wolff, Jason Kokrak and Thomas Pieters all shot 65s to trail by two.

Wolff has had plenty of success in Las Vegas. He finished runner-up at the Shriners Children’s Open in 2020 and 2021.

“I think the golf courses (here) suit me kind of well,” Wolff said. “I feel like I can be a little freer and let loose and stuff. Most of the golf courses here are ones that you can kind of take apart and go low on. I feel like that kind of adds into the low scores and stuff.”

The featured pairing of Jon Rahm (68), Brooks Koepka (68) and Bryson DeChambeau (67) played ho-hum rounds Thursday, but all remain in striking distance. Koepka’s effort was impressive considering he cracked his driver to start the morning and played the round without it.

In the team competition, the Range Goats lead the way at 15 under thanks to the trio of 65s from Watson, Wolff and Pieters.

Greg Robertson covers golf for the Review-Journal. Reach him at grobertson@reviewjournal.com.

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