Justin Thomas described being involved at the Tokyo Olympics as "the coolest thing I've ever been a part of" as he said taking the gold medal would be "the absolute ultimate".

Golf is being staged at the Games for just the fourth time ever and the second time since 1904, having returned to the schedule in Rio five years ago.

The field is not the strongest, with Bryson DeChambeau and world number one Jon Rahm pulling out with coronavirus, while Dustin Johnson, Louis Oosthuizen and Sergio Garcia opted not to play and Brooks Koepka failed to qualify.

But many other big names will take part, including ​world number four Thomas, who won his only major at the US PGA Championship in 2017 and is among those targeting a medal at Kasumigaseki Country Club.

The United States are the only nation with more than two golfers taking part in the event and Thomas says the chance to win gold for his nation is what makes this event so unique.

"It might be the coolest thing I've been a part of. It's not very often where you get so excited about being a part of a tournament," he said at a news conference on Wednesday.

"I really do truly think of Ryder Cups, majors, whatever it is, this is the coolest thing I've ever been a part of. It's unbelievable. Everyone is going to think differently about it.

"I know there's some people who don't think it's that big a deal and don't think it's that cool. 

"I don't know what it is but maybe it's just because being an Olympian, you're known as the best athlete in the world and it's something that golf isn't exactly always linked to."

Asked whether he would rather win a major championship or an Olympic medal, Thomas replied: "If I was going to choose, I'll take the major. 

"But this is something that would mean the absolute ultimate. It would just be the coolest thing to just be able to say not only did you play in it but that you won a gold medal.

"It's just so different. I've tried to compare it, I've tried to think about it.

"This is obviously more special because it's harder to win because you have less chances, but major championships change your life in more than one way."

Like Thomas, Ireland's Rory McIlroy will tee off at the Olympics for the first time when the delayed 2020 event gets up and running on Thursday.

Four-time major winner McIlroy sampled the the course on Tuesday and was impressed by the quality, though he is disappointed that no supporters will be in attendance this week.

"When Hideki [Matsuyama, of Japan] won the Masters, the first thing I thought of was how good is the atmosphere going to be at the Olympics," McIlroy said.

"Unfortunately, that's not the case. So yeah, it's tough.

"It's not the Olympic experience anyone dreams of having. I was even saying to Shane [Lowry] how good would it be to go and watch some of the other events this evening. 

"That's the unfortunate part about it, but there's three medals up for grabs, and we're all here trying to play for them."

McIlroy, who has been drawn with tournament favourite Collin Morikawa and South Korea's Sungjae Im, added: "The course itself is great. It's really, really nice.

"I've always been a big fan of Tom Fazio courses anyway. I'm trying to sort of think what I could compare it to back in the States, but it's a really fun golf course

"It's in great shape, obviously. It's immaculate. There's plenty of opportunities out there for birdies, but if you don't hit the fairways, the rough is pretty penal in spots."

Ireland's other representative in the men's golf tournament is Shane Lowry, who is ranked 40th in the world but is eager to challenge for a top-three finish.

"What people don't understand is we don't win too many medals," he said. "So I think it would be huge for me and huge for the country.

"Obviously it's going to take a lot of good golf. It's going to take something special this week. But it would mean an awful lot to me."

After an enforced absence in 2020 due to the coronavirus pandemic, The Open is thankfully back on this year's golf calendar.

Royal St George's will host the 149th edition of the tournament, a welcome return to the Kent course that saw Darren Clarke triumph a decade ago.

Shane Lowry is the defending champion, having prevailed at Royal Portrush in 2019, but can he retain his crown? Will one of the big guns instead get their hands on the famous Claret Jug, or could another long shot follow in the footsteps of Ben Curtis, an unlikely champion at the venue back in 2003?

Ahead of the opening round, it is time to take a look at some of the players who could be in contention for glory in the final major of the year.

 

RAHM READY FOR OPEN CHALLENGE – Nicholas McGee

Jon Rahm has struggled to capture his best in four previous appearances at The Open, just one of which has seen him finish with an under-par score (-3 in 2019). However, only in 2018 has he missed the cut, and his blistering form in 2021 suggests he should be firmly in the mix this week.

His 11 top-10 finishes rank as the most on the PGA Tour this season. Rahm also leads the tour in scoring average (69.6) and in strokes gained (2.02 avg). Second in strokes gained tee to green and (1.82 avg) and fifth in greens in regulation (71 per cent), Rahm has displayed consistency that should lend itself to links golf. Further optimism came with a seventh-placed finish at the Scottish Open. The stage looks set for him to emphatically turn his Open fortunes around.

SPIETH HAS THE BELIEF – Russell Greaves

Jordan Spieth has three key things in his favour at this tournament: he's a man in form, he's exceptional with the putter, and he's won it before. The 2017 Champion Golfer of the Year has an overall putting average of 1.566 on the PGA Tour in 2021, placing him seventh in that metric.

That showing on the greens has laid the foundations for a year in which the 27-year-old has enjoyed eight top-10 finishes. He was in a tie for third at the Masters and boasts a career aggregate score of 21 under at the Open Championship, marking him down as a leading contender in Kent.

NO DOUBTING THOMAS AFTER RECENT RUN – Dan Lewis

Justin Thomas has struggled on the links in his career but ended up in a tie for eighth at the Scottish Open last week – his first top-10 finish since winning the Players Championship in March. He opened and closed with rounds of 65 at the Renaissance Club, where he used a new putter, and has not carded a bogey in his last 25 holes.

The 28-year-old may not be among the top group of contenders, but the 2017 US PGA Championship winner is certainly capable of carrying his momentum into this event to claim a second major in his career.

DUSTIN'S TIME TO HAVE A MAJOR IMPACT - Timothy Abraham

The form book might be against him, but world number one Dustin Johnson can have a Claret Jug-shaped silver lining to a disappointing 2021 in the majors. The American failed to make the cut at both the Masters and the US PGA Championship, alongside a 19th-placed finish in the U.S. Open this year.

An aggregate career score of +15 in The Open is hardly the stuff of a potential champion, but a decade ago he tied second behind champion Clarke. Johnson is a better player now, and the type of optimist capable of winning a major out of the blue. Write him off at your peril.

GLORY FOR RORY AGAIN? ABSOLUTELY! – Chris Myson

The Open champion in 2014, Rory McIlroy is rightly seen as a contender in Kent. He did miss the cut at this tournament in 2019 – but that was the first time he has done so since 2013.

When the Northern Irishman gets to the weekend at The Open, he is usually competitive. He had four consecutive top-five finishes prior to his previous disappointing outing and has a total of five in his career, including that triumph seven years ago. A top 10 at the U.S. Open gave McIlroy some much-needed major momentum and he can now finish with a flourish in his final opportunity this year.

HATTON CAN LINK IT ALL TOGETHER - John Skilbeck

Considering the winners Royal St George's has thrown up in the 21st century - Curtis and a past-his-prime Clarke - you might as well stick a pin in the field and take your chances. Tyrrell Hatton has twice won the Dunhill Links Championship which points to him knowing how to handle an Open course, and he has scored victories on each side of the Atlantic in the past 18 months so brings recent experience of closing out tournaments successfully.

Whether he wins or not is another thing: there are missed cuts on his Open Championship CV. However, two top-six finishes in the last four editions suggests the Englishman might not be far away.

World number one Jon Rahm is just two shots off the lead at the Scottish Open after a five-under 66 in the first round. 

Six players, including Tommy Fleetwood and Ian Poulter, matched the recently crowned U.S. Open champion's score during Thursday’s play at The Renaissance Club.

Lee Westwood and Rahm's playing partner Justin Thomas went one better, though, to leave them just behind surprise leader Jack Senior, who carded a seven-under 64.

Rory McIlroy was also in action in the same group as Rahm and Thomas, the Northern Irishman finishing on one under, and Rahm revealed he was in awe of the duo, who have both previously sat on top of the world rankings.

"Playing with Justin Thomas and Rory McIlroy with their CVs puts you in your place," he said. "I'm still really far from what they have accomplished. It's certainly motivational, you know?

"I was able to accomplish a dream, something that some people have taken longer to do and to do it at 26, playing some good golf, it's good stuff.

"It's all a motivation to keep playing better and win the tournament.

"I'm not going to lie, I think I might have missed that first tee shot because I'm there sitting with Rory, great player, Justin, great player, and I get announced as world number one, Race to Dubai leader and U.S. Open champion.

"I was just a little surprised by it. I didn't expect it. My ego might have got a little too big, tried to hit a little too hard on one."

World number five Xander Schauffele and Ryder Cup captain Padraig Harrington were in a group of 14 players sat on four under par.

After an absence of 112 years, golf made a grand return to the Olympics schedule at the 2016 Rio Games.

Now, four years on, another stellar cast from the men's and women's games are descending on Tokyo aiming to stand atop the podium.

While several big names once again opted out – including former world number one Dustin Johnson – amid a demanding schedule during the traditional major season, the likes of Rory McIlroy, Jon Rahm and Nelly Korda offer plenty of star attraction.

With that in mind, Stats Perform provides an overview of those competing for golfing glory in Japan.

RAHM, BRYSON, MCILROY AND THOMAS THE HEADLINE ACTS

Justin Rose missed out on qualification, meaning there will be a new gold medal winner in the men's competition. And what an achievement it would be for Rahm to add an Olympic accolade to his name fresh off breaking his major duck with a fine U.S. Open triumph last month. McIlroy finished in a tie for seventh at Torrey Pines and, having previously been among the biggest critics of golf at the Olympics, is to make his Games debut representing Ireland aiming to add a gold medal to his four career majors. There are four male representatives from a star-studded United States cast that includes three major winners in the form of Justin Thomas, Bryson DeChambeau and Colin Morikawa. DeChambeau had been well in contention to win the U.S. Open before a final-round collapse, with Morikawa finishing fourth. Xander Schauffele – the final American male in action – was tied seventh and is sure to have plenty of support given his mother, who was born in Taiwan, grew up in Japan.

KORDA OUT TO TAKE INBEE'S CROWN

Inbee Park is one of the all-time greats and the seven-time major victor is among the favourites to retain her gold medal from Rio four years ago. Ko Jin-young provides another strong South Korean hope, as do countrywomen Kim Sei-young and Kim Hyo-joo. But it is Nelly Korda who travels to Tokyo with all the momentum. The 22-year-old took the Women's US PGA Championship last month to ascend to the top of the LPGA rankings for the first time. Elder sister Jessica Korda also qualified, while their brother Sebastian is in line to represent the United States in tennis. Major winners Danielle Kang and Lexi Thompson complete a strong four-woman contingent. Filipino sensation Yuka Saso, who won the U.S. Open this year, is another to watch out for in the women's competition.

MATSUYAMA, HATAOKA OUT TO MAKE MOST OF HOME ADVANTAGE

Hideki Matsuyama made history by becoming the first man from Japan to win a major tournament with his glorious triumph at the Masters back in April. Moreover, the 29-year-old has previous at the Kasumigaseki Country Club – a venue where he won the Asia-Amateur Championship in 2010. A quiet man he may be on the course, but expect fireworks from Matsuyama in Tokyo. In the women's field, Nasa Hataoka is the highest-ranked Japanese player gunning for gold. With eight professional wins to her name, Hataoka went agonisingly close to securing a maiden major when she lost out in a play-off to then-teenager Saso at the U.S. Open. Hinako Shibuno, the 2019 Women's British Open champion, missed out on selection with Mone Inami instead Japan's other female representative.

Jon Rahm birdied his final two holes to outlast Louis Oosthuizen by one stroke for U.S. Open victory and his first major title.

Oosthuizen was in a three-way share of the lead heading into the deciding round and opened up a one-shot lead on a gripping final day at Torrey Pines.

But Rahm rallied in San Diego, where the emotional Spanish star dramatically birdied the 17th and 18th holes to claim a lead he never relinquished on Sunday.

Rahm signed for a four-under-par 67 to finish six under through 72 holes as 2010 Open Championship winner Oosthuizen (71) settled for a runners-up cheque.

At the scene of his maiden PGA Tour win – the 2017 Farmers Insurance Open – Rahm became the fourth player from Spain to win a major and first at the U.S. Open.

Rahm, who was forced to withdraw from the Memorial Tournament when leading by six shots after testing positive for coronavirus earlier this month, said post-round: "I'm a big believer in karma. After what happened a couple of weeks ago, I stayed really positive, knowing big things were coming.

"I didn't know what it was going to be, but I knew we were coming to a special place, I know I got my breakthrough win here, and it's a very special place for my family. The fact my parents were able to come, I got out of COVID protocol early, I just felt like the stars were aligning.

"I can't even believe I made the first two putts! This was definitely for Seve [Ballesteros]. I know he tried a lot, and wanted to win this one most of all. I just don't know how to explain it! I don't know why, but every time we land here, we are happy. We’re in our spot!"

Oosthuizen was initially circumspect on day four, going one over through eight holes to leave the South African one shot behind defending champion Bryson DeChambeau – who came agonisingly close to a sensational hole-in-one at the par-three eighth.

But DeChambeau was unable to maintain his hot start, finishing with a forgettable six-over-par 77 to end the event eight shots off the pace.

Oosthuizen also failed to keep Rahm at bay – dropped shots at the 11th and 17th holes, paving the way for the red-hot Spanish golfer to emerge triumphant for the first time at a major.

Harris English (68) finished solo third, a stroke better off than Guido Migliozzi (68), two-time U.S. Open winner Brooks Koepka (69) and Collin Morikawa (70) as former world number one Rory McIlroy's final-round 73 resulted in a share of seventh spot at one under.

World number one Dustin Johnson (74) and fellow stars Jordan Spieth (72) Justin Thomas (73), Patrick Reed (67) and Sergio Garcia (68) closed out the event tied for 19th.

Richard Bland upstaged a star-studded field to earn a share of the U.S. Open lead at the halfway stage as defending champion Bryson DeChambeau soared up the leaderboard.

Unheralded Englishman Bland, 48, powered to the top of the summit at Torrey Pines thanks to his four-under-par 67 in San Diego, where he continues to prove patience pays off.

Alongside Russell Henley (70) for the one-stroke lead after two rounds, Bland is benefitting from perseverance, having gone almost 20 years without a European Tour title.

At the 478th attempt on the European Tour last month, Bland claimed an emotional win at the British Masters, which earned him a place in his fourth major championship.

Bland – who missed the cut at his one previous U.S. Open appearance in 2009 – dazzled on day two of this year's tournament, storming into the clubhouse lead before being joined by American Henley.

After opening with a 70, Bland holed seven birdies and three bogeys to catapult himself to the top of the standings, before Henley teed off in his second round, amid his improbable dream of clinching a major.

"I feel good about my game," said three-time PGA Tour champion Henley, whose previous best performance at a major came via an 11th-place finish at the 2017 Masters.

"I've never been in this position before in a major. Just feel like I'm going to learn something no matter what happens."

Louis Oosthuizen (71), who was the overnight co-leader along with Henley, ended day two in a tie for third position alongside Matthew Wolff (68), while Bubba Watson (67) and Jon Rahm (70) are a shot further back at three under through 36 holes.

DeChambeau boosted his hopes of back-to-back U.S. Open titles, though the big-hitting American star remains five strokes off the pace heading into the weekend.

A two-under-par 69 saw DeChambeau move to even par as he rose 47 positions into a tie for 13th alongside rival and two-time U.S. Open champion Brooks Koepka (73), Justin Thomas (69), Collin Morikawa (67), Harris English (70), Branden Grace (70), Christiaan Bezuidenhout (70) and Adam Hadwin (72).

Koepka – eyeing a fifth major crown – lost ground on the leaders after mixing five bogeys and just three birdies, while Rory McIlroy followed his opening-round 70 with a 73 to be one over the card as world number one Dustin Johnson (73) ended the day two over.

US PGA Championship winner Phil Mickelson emerged from the jaws of elimination, qualifying for the weekend via a two-under-par 69 after his forgettable 75 on Thursday.

Masters champion Hideki Matsuyama (76), Adam Scott (75), Sergio Garcia (74), Patrick Reed (73) and Jordan Spieth (69) all avoided the cut, but Justin Rose (77) was not so fortunate at 13 over.

Collin Morikawa carded a six-under-par 66 to claim a one-stroke lead before bad weather halted the opening round of the Memorial Tournament.

Thunderstorms forced a weather-hit day one to be suspended at Muirfield Village, where Morikawa managed to set the early pace before play was stopped on Thursday.

Morikawa – last year's US PGA Championship winner – was almost flawless in Dublin, Ohio after holing seven birdies and just one bogey.

A run of three consecutive birdies and four in five to start his back nine sent Morikawa to the top of the leaderboard, just ahead of fellow American Adam Long.

"It was definitely the rain," Morikawa said. "The greens were soft enough and they're receptive. But you have to hit the fairway. Out here, wet rough, it's not going to help when the rough is pretty long.

Bo Hoag, Nick Taylor, Xander Schauffele and Rafa Cabrera Bello also completed their rounds and ended the day two strokes off the pace, while defending champion Jon Rahm, Justin Thomas and Rickie Fowler are among a group a shot further back at three under.

Reigning U.S. Open champion and 2018 Memorial Tournament winner Bryson DeChambeau – gearing up for his upcoming title defence at Torrey Pines Golf Course in San Diego this month – was two under through three holes at the time of the suspension.

Former world number one Jordan Spieth also completed three holes – one under – when play was called off, while Masters champion Hideki Matsuyama, who won the PGA Tour event in 2014, did complete his round following a one-over-par 73.

Four-time major champion Rory McIlroy will return to finish his round early on Friday after going one over through two holes in wet conditions.

Jordan Spieth birdied his last hole to retain a one-stroke lead heading into the final round at the Charles Schwab Challenge.

Jason Kokrak had joined 2016 champion Spieth atop the leaderboard before the latter stepped up to birdie the 18th in the third round at Colonial Country Club on Saturday.

Former world number one Spieth signed for another four-under-par 66 to remain the player to beat ahead of Sunday's finale in Fort Worth, Texas.

Spieth, whose 40-hole bogey-free streak ended at the par-four fifth hole, is eyeing his second PGA Tour title of the season, having ended his four-year trophy drought via last month's Texas Open.

A three-time major champion, Spieth only dropped two shots as he finished with six birdies, including three across a flawless back nine to be 15 under through 54 holes.

Fellow American Kokrak stayed within a shot of Spieth courtesy of his third-round 66.

Sergio Garcia – the 2017 Masters champion and 2001 Charles Schwab Challenge winner – is five strokes off the pace following his two-under-par 68.

Ian Poulter (64) surged up the leaderboard, improving 26 positions to be tied for fourth at eight under alongside Sebastian Munoz (70).

Former world number one and 2013 U.S. Open champion Justin Rose (69) is 10 shots behind Spieth, defending champion Collin Morikawa is two strokes further back after his 72, while Justin Thomas (71) slipped to 46th – 14 shots adrift.

Jordan Spieth seized control of the Charles Schwab Challenge after claiming a one-shot lead at the half-way stage of the tournament, while Phil Mickelson failed to qualify for the weekend.

Former world number one and three-time major champion Spieth earned the outright lead thanks to a four-under-par 66 in Fort Worth, Texas on Friday.

Spieth entered the second round tied with 2017 Masters winners Sergio Garcia atop the standings by two strokes at Colonial Country Club.

Winner of the 2016 Charles Schwab Challenge, Spieth followed up his flawless 63 with another bogey-free round to move clear of the field after play was temporarily suspended due to inclement weather.

Spieth – who is the only bogey-free player through 36 holes at 11 under – holds his 13th second-round lead/co-lead on the PGA Tour – he is six-for-12 to date converting to victory.

Fellow American Jason Kokrak is second following his five-under-par 65, while Garcia (69), Sebastian Munoz (65) and Patton Kizzire (65) are two shots further back at eight under.

Defending champion Collin Morikawa is six shots off the pace after posting a second-round 66.

Justin Thomas (66) registered his 51st bogey-free round of his career. The 14-time PGA Tour champion, who is two under, recorded his 102nd round of 66 or better since 2012 – marking the fourth best on Tour.

Meanwhile, US PGA Championship winner Mickelson missed the cut, despite a heroic 69.

Mickelson, who made history at last week's PGA Championship after the 50-year-old became the oldest major winner in golf history, ended the event two over – just a shot outside the cut line.

Keith Mitchell leads Rory McIlroy by two strokes following three rounds of the Wells Fargo Championship, where Bryson DeChambeau endured a whirlwind 24 hours.

American golfer Mitchell carded a five-under-par 66 to surge to the top of the leaderboard at Quail Hollow on Saturday.

Mitchell, whose solitary PGA Tour title came via the 2019 Honda Classic, was flawless in the penultimate round after holing five birdies without dropping a shot.

But four-time major champion McIlroy is lurking in Charlotte, where the two-time Wells Fargo Championship winner is two shots off the pace.

Former world number one McIlroy, who raced out to the lead, posted a three-under-par 68 to be tied for second position alongside Gary Woodland (70).

McIlroy was also two strokes back at the halfway stage of the tournament on Friday, having made the cut for the first time in two months.

A healthy crowd was in attendance to watch McIlroy lurk heading into the final round and the Northern Irish star – amid the coronavirus pandemic that has impacted attendances – said: "I sort of realised that it's hard for me to bring the best out in myself without that atmosphere that we had today. I'm excited to be in the position I'm in."

U.S. Open champion DeChambeau ended the day eight shots behind Mitchell following his third-round 68.

DeChambeau flew home to Dallas on Friday after thinking he missed the cut. When the cut changed, the American star boarded another flight back to Charlotte.

"It was funny," said DeChambeau. "We did a lot of scrambling last night to get back. One of the scenarios was like turning right back around, but the crew couldn't, you know, refuel and their hours were out. So we had to get a new crew, if anything, and it just didn't work out.

"So we're like, 'Well, let's just go in the morning'. So I left at 02:45am on a flight and I got here at 06:20am Drove 30 minutes to the golf course, put on my clothes in the locker room and headed out to the putting green. I did get a workout last night, though."

DeChambeau has a double-bogey or worse in each of his rounds at this year's Wells Fargo Championship. It is the fifth time in his career that he has recorded at least one double-bogey or worse in each of the first three rounds of a Tour event.

If there ever was a course to get slumping Rory McIlroy back on track, Quail Hollow might be it. 

McIlroy shot a five-under-par 66 Friday at the Wells Fargo Championship to make the cut for the first time in two months and reach four-under for the tournament, two strokes behind leaders Matt Wallace, Gary Woodland and Patrick Rodgers. 

First-round leader Phil Mickelson dropped to a tie for 10th overall after carding a 75 at the Charlotte, North Carolina course. 

Only Roger Sloan (64) went lower than McIlroy in the second round, as the 32-year-old recorded six birdies and just one bogey after shooting 72 in the first round. 

The Northern Irishman recorded his first PGA Tour victory at Quail Hollow in 2010 and won there again in 2015. He lost out to Rickie Fowler in a three-man playoff in 2012. 

McIlroy is playing his first tournament since missing the cut at the Masters and The Players Championship, the latter coming a week after a 10th-place finish at the Arnold Palmer invitational in early March. 

"When you played the way I played sort of through that stretch in March and into April, you're going to feel like you're not as close as you probably are," McIlroy told reporters. 

"But I worked hard after Augusta. I took a week off and reset, which I needed.

"Then I put my head down and worked hard and at least felt better about everything coming in here."

Among the three leaders heading into the weekend, Wallace shot 67 Friday, Rodgers 68 and Woodland 69.

Kramer Hickok is one stroke back at five-under for the tournament, while Scott Piercy, Keith Mitchell, Carlos Ortiz and Scott Stallings are tied with McIlroy at four-under. 

Mickelson and two-time Masters champion Bubba Watson are among those at three-under, while 2018 Masters winner Patrick Reed sits four back of the leaders. 

Justin Thomas is six back entering the weekend, while 2020 U.S. Open champion Bryson DeChambeau and 2020 Open Championship winner Shane Lowry just made the two-over cut. 

Among those who missed the cut were past major champions Fowler, Jason Day, Francesco Molinari and Lucas Glover  in addition to defending champion Max Homa and Jon Rahm.

Rahm had made 22 consecutive cuts, the longest active streak on Tour.

Phil Mickelson knows Quail Hollow as well as any course on the PGA Tour, and his comfort there was clear on Thursday as he earned a two-stroke lead in the opening round of the Wells Fargo Championship. 

Mickelson carded a seven-under-par 64 to set the early pace in Charlotte, North Carolina, where the five-time major champion is looking for his first win in 17 consecutive appearances at the event. 

The 50-year-old has always played well there, though, finishing in the top five in half of his 16 previous starts at the tournament. 

Lee Kyoung-hoon and Keegan Bradley were two shots back after shooting 66s.

Mickelson recorded just one bogey on day one while carding eight birdies, including four of the last five holes. 

He won two Champions Tour events last year in his debut season on that circuit, but has not captured a PGA Tour title since winning at Pebble Beach in February 2019. 

Mickelson's last opening-round lead or co-lead came three weeks prior to that in Palm Springs, but he did not want to put any additional pressure on himself after Thursday's strong start.

"I don't want to jump ahead, I want to play a good round tomorrow," said Mickelson, who recorded his lowest score on Tour since a 63 in the second round of the 2020 Travelers Championship. "I have an opportunity to play a course I love with a great pairing.

"I'm playing well and I just want to kind of not get ahead of myself and go play another fun round."

Mickelson, who entered the week ranked number 115 in the world, has 30 career opening-round leads/co-lads – the second most on Tour since 1992.

American star Justin Thomas closed out the first round five shots off the pace, while U.S. Open champion Bryson DeChambeau and 2012 tournament winner Rickie Fowler are a stroke further back.

Former Masters champion Patrick Reed shot a 71 as Xander Schauffele and former world number one Rory McIlroy ended the day one over the card.

McIlroy – winner of the Wells Fargo Championship in 2015 – mixed three bogeys and two birdies on a challenging day for the four-time major champion.

Jon Rahm struggled following his opening-round 76, while defending champion Max Homa's bid for back-to-back titles started with a six-over-par 77.

Sam Burns earned his maiden PGA Tour title after winning the Valspar Championship by three strokes.

Burns and 2011 US PGA Championship winner Keegan Bradley had been level atop the leaderboard through the second and third rounds in Palm Harbor, Florida.

But Burns broke the deadlock with his fellow American on Sunday courtesy of a three-under-par 68 at Innisbrook Resort and Golf Club.

Burns mixed six birdies with three bogeys in the final round as the 24-year-old improved to 17 under and became the second youngest winner in Valspar Championship history.

He also became the fifth player to claim his first Tour title at the tournament, with Adam Hadwin the last to do so in 2017.

An even-par 71 saw Bradley drop down into sole possession of second spot – the four-time Tour champion's seventh runner-up finish in 273 starts.

It all turned sour for Bradley on the back nine, where he found water on the par-three 13th hole, leading to a double bogey. Burns birdied the 14th to open up a three-shot advantage and never looked back.

Viktor Hovland (65) and Cameron Tringale (68) finished tied for third – four strokes behind Burns, while American star Justin Thomas (70) earned a share of 13th position, six shots further back.

Two-time defending champion after the 2020 event was cancelled due to the coronavirus pandemic, Paul Casey's bid for a three-peat ended following his final-round 68, which left him tied for 21st.

World number one Dustin Johnson, meanwhile, closed out the tournament 15 strokes adrift after his two-under-par 69.

Keegan Bradley and Sam Burns remained tied for the lead through three rounds at the Valspar Championship, where world number one Dustin Johnson fell down the standings.

Level atop the leaderboard at the tournament's halfway stage, American pair Bradley and Burns were again locked together on 14 under following Saturday's penultimate round in Palm Harbor, Florida.

Bradley, who won the 2011 US PGA Championship, and Burns both carded two-under-par 69s to be a stroke clear of charging countryman Max Homa at Innisbrook Resort and Golf Club.

Burns – eyeing his maiden PGA Tour title – held a commanding three-stroke lead after Bradley bogeyed the 13th hole, but the latter chipped in for an eagle to cut the deficit to just one shot.

A Burns bogey on the par-four 16th left the duo deadlocked again before the pair exchanged bogeys at the last to head into the final round as the men to beat through 54 holes.

It is Burns' third 54-hole lead/co-lead of the season, level with Jordan Spieth for the most on the PGA Tour.

The last time Burns held the 54-hole lead/co-lead on tour, Homa came from behind to win the 2021 Genesis Invitational and the latter is once again looming large.

Homa, who posted a third-round 66, is looking to become the third player to win multiple titles during the 2020-21 season, joining Bryson DeChambeau and Stewart Cink.

American star Justin Thomas shot a four-under-par 67 to catapult himself into a tie for 18th, eight shots off the pace.

Johnson, meanwhile, struggled to a three-over 74 on day three of the event.

There was a dreadful end to the round for Johnson, who had two double-bogeys from his final three holes to crash down to even par for the tournament – 14 strokes behind Bradley and Burns.

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