Thomas leads CJ Cup with 'very easy 63' on Koepka's day to forget

Justin Thomas shot a stunning nine-under 63 Friday on Jeju Island to take control of the CJ Cup from home favorite An Byeong-hun as world No. 1 Brooks Koepka's title defense evaporated with a 75.

JEJU, South Korea — Justin Thomas shot a stunning nine-under 63 Friday on Jeju Island to take control of the CJ Cup from home favorite An Byeong-hun as world No. 1 Brooks Koepka's title defense evaporated with a 75.

Overnight leader An was reeled in by the relentless Thomas who started four shots behind but finished two in front after setting the South Korea event's 36-hole tournament record on 13-under 131.

"That was, I would say, overall one of the better rounds I've played in a while," Thomas declared after equaling his own best round at the $9.75 million US PGA Tour event.

"I just kind of kept the ball in play off the tee, hit some good irons. I think I hit every green and made a couple putts early," said Thomas, who also shot 63 in the opening round two years ago on the way to victory.

"And then the back nine, I got a few close to the holes where those birdies came easier. So it just was a very easy 63, if you can somehow say that."

South Korea's An, who shot 69, shares second on 11-under going into the weekend with Seoul-born New Zealander Danny Lee, whose 66 could have been better but for a bogey at 18.

Koepka, the winner at the Nine Bridges course a year ago, had a day to forget with five bogeys in his three-over par round and ended the day 13 shots off the lead.

The best player in the world wasn't even the best player in his family — little brother Chase Koepka shot a level-par 72 to go into the weekend at two-under par, two shots better than his famous sibling.

A rejuvenated Jordan Spieth rolled home five birdies in his last seven holes in a putting masterclass to card a 65 and move into contention.

The three-time major winner and former world number one shares fourth place on nine-under par with Emiliano Grillo of Argentina, who carded a 66.

The 26-year-old Texan has not won a tournament for two years but felt he was close to his majestic best Friday.

"There's still some work to do for sure, I'd call it 'B' ball control but I was 'A-plus' putting," Spieth told AFP.

"Just got to go out tomorrow and hit as many greens as possible and keep rolling it the way I've been rolling it."

Thomas, the inaugural CJ Cup winner in 2017, blasted out of the blocks on a blustery morning on the side of Mount Halla, Korea's highest mountain that dominates Jeju Island.

He birdied each of the first four holes to get to eight-under par and another on the eighth put him within striking distance of the Korean.

An's round got going around the turn with four birdies from his eighth to 11th holes.

"I guess my putting was pretty good. I didn't miss any short putts and a couple of long ones dropped, that definitely helped," said An.

Thomas started the back nine with his sixth birdie and another on the par-five 12th drew him level.

A three at the par-four 14th gave him the outright lead and a two-putt birdie at the par-five 18th provided a two-shot cushion going into the weekend.

Phil Mickelson came within a whisker Friday of an amazing new chapter in his storied career when he was a fraction from a hole-in-one at the CJ Cup — on a par four.

The five-time major winner, who has graced the world's top 50 for more than 25 years, hit the pin at the 353-yard 14th hole with the ball finishing just inches from the cup for a brush-in eagle.

Had it dropped, it would have been only the second ace at a par four in US PGA Tour history.

Mickelson, who carded a second-round 72 to add to his opening 70, lies 11 strokes off the lead held by his playing partner for the first two rounds, Thomas.

But at least "Lefty" now has the consolation of an early contender for shot of the season.

"So it was 307 (yards) to the front, so I had to go ahead and hit it," said Mickelson, whose perfect blow with a driver took one hop on the green fringe and arrowed straight at the hole.

It clanged into the flagstick with just enough pace to prevent it falling to incredulous gasps from the group in front, who had stepped aside to let Mickelson play up.

A hole-in-one is extremely rare and an albatross — three under par on one hole — is even rarer. But a combination of both on a par four is virtually unheard of.

The only one in the history of the US PGA Tour was made by Andrew Magee on the 17th hole at Scottsdale in Phoenix, Arizona, in January 2001.

"I've actually had one hole-in-one on a par four, but never in competition. This would have been spectacular," revealed Mickelson.

"I mean it was right at it, but you never think it's going to hit the pin or go in," he added.

"You can't tell where the distance is or where it's going to fly. And I couldn't really see it. I just saw the reaction of the guys up on the green and knew that it almost went in.

"It would have changed my whole attitude because the day was pretty frustrating otherwise," he said after a level-par round containing four bogeys, two birdies and that eagle left him two-under going into the weekend.

Thomas leads in Jeju, South Korea, after setting the event's 36-hole tournament scoring record with a 13-under 131 total after a 63 on Friday. — AFP