Feb 28 (Reuters) - Jhonattan Vegas took the early first-round lead on Thursday at the Honda Classic, a tournament that has recently attracted a stellar field but has fallen victim this year of the PGA Tour’s new condensed schedule.
Vegas hit the ball with metronomic efficiency to card six-under-par 64 at PGA National in Palm Beach Gardens.
Yet the big talking point in the lead-up to the first round was the absence of most of the game’s biggest names from the tournament.
Only three among the top 20 in the world rankings are present — Justin Thomas, Brooks Koepka and Rickie Fowler — making it the weakest field in more than a decade.
Tiger Woods, Dustin Johnson and Rory McIlroy are among those sitting out the event, even though they all live locally.
A number of big events both before and after the Honda Classic has left the longest title sponsor on the PGA Tour facing a problem not of its own making.
Honda began sponsoring the south Florida tournament in 1982 but this year, it comes coming directly after the WGC-Mexico Championship and only two weeks ahead of the Players Championship.
The Players, the most prestigious event outside the four majors, has switched from May to March, while the PGA Championship has moved from August to May.
The tour season will finish in late August, instead of late September.
The scheduling, however, appeared of little concern to Vegas who notched six birdies in benign morning conditions on Thursday.
“I was able to drive... really well today, hit my irons incredibly well,” said the 34-year-old from Venezuela.
“I only missed three greens and of those I left two within 15 feet of the hole.
“Hitting those irons well to some of these tough pins makes the day a little bit easier. Wind wasn’t that hard so you could be a little more aggressive than usual.”
Vegas, ranked 131st in the world, is a three-times PGA Tour winner.
He led by two strokes from South African Ernie Els, American Zach Johnson and Canadian Ben Silverman with half the field back in the clubhouse.
Reporting by Andrew Both in Cary, North Carolina Editing by Toby Davis