NASSAU, Bahamas — Sepp Straka was home in Alabama preparing for a big week of golf matches at his club, a friend’s wedding and the SEC championship game. And then Tiger Woods couldn’t play in the Bahamas because of a foot injury, and Straka had a change in plans.
It worked out OK for him.
The replacement for Woods managed six birdies at rain-soaked Albany for a 3-under 69 that gave him a share of the lead at the Hero World Challenge with defending champion Viktor Hovland, Tom Kim and Collin Morikawa.
Straka was first off in the pro-am, the time usually occupied by Woods. He was paired with Justin Thomas, who typically plays the first round with Woods.
Did he get anything else from the tournament host?
“The iron game wasn’t as good as his, but maybe rubbed off a little bit on me,” Straka. “So yeah, that was nice.”
Hovland was the only player to reach 4 under at any point before a bogey on the 16th. He is trying to join Woods as the only players to win this holiday event back-to-back.
Hovland is staying with Morikawa again. A year ago, Morikawa had a five-shot lead and needed a win to reach No. 1 in the world when he shot 76 in the final round and Hovland rallied with a 66 to win.
And then there’s Kim, the 20-year-old rising star from South Korea who already has won twice on the PGA Tour and delivered on a big stage in the Presidents Cup. His week began by meeting Woods for the first time — “It was really cool. I have to pinch myself a little bit,” he said — and then he somehow went bogey-free at Albany.
The course typically yields low scores, except for rain that left foot-deep puddles in some of the sandy areas and made chipping difficult from tight lies on soggy turf.
Kim was superb with his short game. He was in the front bunker on the par-3 17th and clipped the shot of muddied sand with such speed that it checked 3 feet from the hole.
Cameron Young, who came within inches of an ace on the hole, smiled at his father and said, “He’s allergic to bogeys.”
Young, the PGA Tour rookie of the year and one of seven newcomers to the elite, 20-man field, had a 71 and was among only eight players who broke par.
Straka is the only player to have never played in a Ryder Cup or Presidents Cup at Albany. He is No. 29 in the world, a winner for the first time at the Honda Classic, earlier in the year, and had no intention of being in the Bahamas.
He is a member at Shoal Creek, and this was the week of the club matches against Greystone. J.T. Poston, a two-time winner on tour, is getting married on Friday. The big day was Saturday, when Georgia plays LSU in Atlanta.
He was about to tee off Monday afternoon to get ready for the matches when the call came in to say Woods had plantar fasciitis in his right foot and would not be playing.
It was an easy decision for Straka, who was born and raised in Austria and moved to Valdosta, Georgia, when he was 14, played at Georgia and bounces seamlessly between German and Southern in speech.
“It was a huge opportunity and just awesome to be here,” he said.
Masters champion Scottie Scheffler, a runner-up at the World Challenge last year, had a 72. He needs to win to get back to No. 1 in the world.
As for Woods, he kept up his presence at the tournament spending time in the television booth. He has not played since the Open Championship in July.