Alex Cejka scrunches down so low when he lines up putts that it looks like he’s grinding away in a garden.
Pull a weed here, dig out a root there. Or chip back into the fairway from behind a tree in hopes of saving par like he did at No. 18 Thursday as long shadows crept across TPC Summerlin.
Cejka stuffed his next shot three feet from the hole, bent low to analyze any break, and knocked in the putt to finish off a 66 that put him one stroke from the first-round lead at the Shriners Hospitals for Children Open.
If that bogey-free, 5-under-par score can be called a grind, it was for Cejka, 46, a Las Vegas resident looking to fend off a field full of players nearly half his age. Indeed, Cejka has grinded throughout his career; he joined the PGA Tour in 2003 and is making his 358th start with his lone victory coming at the 2015 Puerto Rico Open.
Three rounds remain, of course. And Cejka talked of the pressure of wanting to play well in front of family and friends following in his gallery. He spoke of fighting winds that gusted to 20 mph and kept scores higher for players in the afternoon groups.
“It was tricky,” Cejka said. “I know where to hit it and I know where to miss it here. But I was playing a little bit of defense.”
Cejka was one of a few players who gave chase to Whee Kim, a 25-year-old from South Korea with a self-taught swing he developed as a youngster by watching YouTube videos of Tiger Woods. Kim teed off in a mostly windless morning and fired a 6-under 65 that also didn’t include a bogey.
“It was very comfortable,” said Kim, who made three birdies each on TPC Summerlin’s front and back nines. “It was actually so easy in the morning. A little cold, but soft conditions.”
The afternoon winds slowed play, and the first round was halted because of darkness at 5:52 p.m. with 25 players still on the course. They will return at 7:30 a.m. to finish their rounds.
Among them will be Jimmy Stanger, 22, who’s playing on a sponsor’s exemption and was at 5 under through 15 holes before the horn blew.
J.J. Spaun, Ryan Blaum and John Huh also shot 66s and joined Cejka in second place.
Former UNLV golfer Charley Hoffman has elevated his focus to make the cut this year, having dedicated his winnings from the tournament to the Las Vegas Victims Fund. He took a big first-round step by carding 3-under 68 to land three strokes behind Kim. Hoffman birdied his final two holes and also eagled the par-4 15th after driving the green and making a six-foot putt.
“My focus is way higher here than in the past,” said Hoffman, who missed the past two cuts after finishing fourth in 2014. “I’ve got a huge focus on trying to contend and win this golf tournament for the city of Las Vegas.”
Fellow UNLV alum and 2012 Shriners Open champion Ryan Moore played with Hoffman and also birdied the last hole to shoot 2-under 69.
Cejka’s history at the Shriners Open suggests a run at that elusive second PGA Tour title. He’s made seven cuts in 10 previous appearances and tied for second last year behind Rod Pampling, who at 47 ended a 10-year drought between victories.
“That save obviously on the last hole gives me a little bit better confidence going into tomorrow’s round. But we still have three rounds to go,” Cejka said.
“I like the course, and so far I’m in good spirits. I have good vibes here, and I’m going to soak it in the next couple of days.”
If you go
What: Shriners Hospitals for Children Open
Where: TPC Summerlin (par 71, 7,255 yards)
Field: 144 players
Purse: $6,800,000; winner’s share $1.224 million
Defending champion: Rod Pampling
Leader Whee Kim
Full name: Meen Whee Kim
Born: Seoul, South Korea
Turned pro: 2010. Web.Com Tour graduate 2014, 2016.
Best finish: Tie for second at this year’s FedEx St. Jude Classic.
Eye of Tiger: Has a self-taught swing he developed by watching YouTube videos of Tiger Woods and reading Woods’ instruction book. Kim said he has never used an instructor.
Dream foursome: Would include the movie characters Ironman, James Bond and Terminator.
Source: PGA Tour bio