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AP photo by Rogelio V. Solis / Harris English tracks a tee shot at the Sanderson Farms Championship last September in Jackson, Miss. The former Baylor School golfer shared the first-round lead at the Honda Classic on Thursday after opening with a 66.

PALM BEACH GARDENS, Fla. — Sponsor exemptions are basically free-play gifts handed out by the people in charge of golf tournaments, a handful of invitations available most weeks to those who wouldn't have otherwise qualified for an event.

Harris English and Tom Lewis were among the recipients for The Honda Classic, and they made the most of their chances Thursday.

Each opened with a 4-under-par 66 on the Champions Course at PGA National to share a one-stroke lead in the tournament that kicks off the PGA Tour's Florida swing. Tied for third were Zach Johnson, J.T. Poston, Brian Stuard, Cameron Tringale and Lee Westwood — who is also in the field thanks to a sponsor exemption.

"I didn't hit it my best, but I knew it was going to be one of those rounds you're going to have to grind it out," said the 30-year-old English, a two-time winner on the PGA Tour in 2013 who is winless since but probably wouldn't mind if a different trend continues at this tournament.

English is a former Baylor School and University of Georgia golfer, and the 2019 Honda Classic champion was Chattanooga native Keith Mitchell, another former Red Raider and Bulldog. Mitchell's win came one year after Baylor graduate Luke List, who played his college golf at Vanderbilt, lost a playoff to Justin Thomas at PGA National.

Thursday is a long way from Sunday, though, in a tournament held on one of the most challenging courses on the PGA Tour, majors included. English, despite his early success, was reminded of that.

"It's windy out there, you're going to have a lot of cross-winds and it played really tough. My short game was on point, and I made some really good putts," he said.

Sometimes no putt was required: English holed out from about 25 yards on the par-4 11th, catching a great lie after a drop because his second shot came to rest on a sprinkler head.

"That was as good as I can do," he said.

It was a rare easy-looking shot at PGA National. The average score was just a smidge below 2 over on a day where wind gusts often topped 20 mph.

English made the turn at 3 under, offsetting a bogey on No. 6 with birdies on Nos. 1 and 7 and an eagle on the par-5 third hole. He added birdies on 11 and 18 but had a bogey on 13.

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AP photo by Lynne Sladky / Tom Lewis tees off on the 18th hole of PGA National's Champions Course during the first round of the Honda Classic on Thursday in Palm Beach Gardens, Fla. Lewis opened with a 66 to share the lead with former Baylor School and University of Georgia golfer Harris English.

List was tied for 88th after a 75 with an eagle on No. 3, three birdies, six bogeys and a double on the par-4 eighth. Mitchell, who hasn't won since his PGA Tour breakthrough here last March, was tied for 120th after a 75 with back-to-back birdies to close but also two bogeys, a double and a triple.

"It's just live and survive, basically," said Matthew NeSmith, who had a hole-in-one on the par-3 fifth on the way to a 71 that left him tied for 48th.

Westwood hit 11 of 14 fairways and was thoroughly pleased with how his day went.

"Everybody should play like that," he said. "Everybody who's out here is in a privileged position with nothing to lose. We should all be having fun. But at the age of nearly 47, it seems even easier. I don't play anywhere I don't want to play. I just play great tournaments and the ones I want to play in, and I set my own schedule and it's just great fun."

Fellow Englishman Lewis, who turned 29 last month, made his splashy entrance into golf headlines as an amateur in 2011, when he was a surprise co-leader after the opening round of the British Open. He played that day with Tom Watson, the five-time British Open winner who was his father's favorite player and the inspiration for his name.

He was the European Tour's rookie of the year that season, but not much has gone right since.

"I struggled for a while, and then I think really things got so low that you couldn't get any lower," Lewis said. "So it was like, 'Well, only good things can happen now.'"

Good things happened in bunches Thursday during his bogey-free round, but the crowd of happy golfers was relatively small as only 22 of 144 broke par.

English met his challenges, too, but he might face another one even before returning to the course. He likes to have breakfast two hours before early rounds, but a 6:45 a.m. tee time Friday could complicate matters.

"Not sure it's open at 4:45," he said.

Another potential obstacle: Forecasters said the temperature would be close to 47 degrees when the second round starts.

 

'Scary' moment

MUSCAT, Oman — Cleared of having a widely spreading virus and reinstated to the field at the last minute, Italian golfers Lorenzo Gagli and Edoardo Molinari were under par at the Oman Open before darkness brought an end to their first rounds.

By that time, compatriot Guido Migliozzi had finished a 6-under 66 for a one-stroke lead over Denmark's Rasmus Hojgaard, South Korea's Taehee Lee and South Africa's Brandon Stone.

In the latest sporting event to be impacted by the coronavirus that has infected more than 81,000 people globally and killed more than 2,750, mostly in China, Gagli exhibited flu-like symptoms Wednesday and was isolated as a precaution. Despite showing no signs of illness, so was Molinari, who had been sharing a hotel room with Gagli.

The Omani Ministry of Health reported early Thursday that Gagli had not tested positive for the virus, and the European Tour said he and Molinari could be added to the field "due to these exceptional circumstances."

They teed off at 1:30 p.m. local time in the final group in an extended 146-man field. Gagli was 3 under and Molinari 2 under when play was suspended for the day with both having played 17 holes. Another three golfers were also still on the course at the time.

"Still shocked by what happened in the last 36 hours," Molinari wrote on Instagram. "I am absolutely fine and so is my good friend Lorenzo.

"It was a scary and annoying situation because it is not something that was in our hands and there were no certainties at all."

Molinari praised the tour, the ministry of health and the Oman Golf Federation for doing "an unbelievable job."

"They tried everything they could to help us in this awful situation," he wrote. "Thank God everything is fine. We are healthy and we are back to playing golf, which even this morning seemed impossible!"

 

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