SUGAR GROVE: Ripper GC’s Jediah Morgan, fighting to retain his spot in the LIV Golf League for next season, opened with a 5-under 66 to share the first-round lead on Friday at LIV Golf Chicago.
Morgan is tied with Fireballs GC Captain Sergio Garcia, Stinger GC Captain Louis Oosthuizen, Crusher GC’s Anirban Lahiri and Torque GC’s Sebastian Munoz on a packed leaderboard in which 19 other players are within two shots of the lead.
Among those pursuers are team captains Brooks Koepka (Smash GC), Dustin Johnson (4Aces GC) and Bryson DeChambeau (Crushers), who each shot 68, and Joaquin Niemann (Torque), who shot 67.
While the four other co-leaders are assured of returning in 2024, the 23-year-old Morgan is one of four players currently in the drop zone who face relegation at the end of the season. He ranks 46th with just three points but a big result this week at Rich Harvest Farms could move him above the drop zone.
Non-captains ranked 45th or worse will be relegated but have a chance to play their way back in later this year at the promotion tournament.
“I know where I am and everyone keeps reminding me where I am, so it’s pretty hard to get away from it,” said Morgan, who posted the low round in the field on Sunday at the previous LIV Golf event in Bedminster last month. “So, there’s no point in me trying to act like it’s not there in my head. It’s obviously there.
“But I know if I play well enough, put myself in the position I think to make putts for birdie, then that’s really all you can do.”
The South African Stinger team, which has finished third in each of the past three tournaments, top the team leaderboard at 13 under, with Charl Schwartzel and Dean Burmester contributing 67s to support Oosthuizen’s score. A strong finish this week could wrap up one of the top four seeds that will receive a bye at the team championship in Miami.
“We’re playing well,” Oosthuizen said. “… We help each other out to try and get into form, and especially now with Miami around the corner, we really want to give a good push to the end.”
The Crushers and Fireballs are one stroke back at 12 under, with the Rippers at 11 under. The top two teams in the season-long standings, No. 1 4Aces and No. 2 Torque, share fifth place at 10 under.
The five-way individual tie is among the most after any LIV Golf first round. Soft conditions provided opportunities for low scores, a big difference from last year’s firm test won by Ripper GC Captain Cameron Smith, who shot 69 on Friday.
“With the conditions, the course is quite gettable,” Garcia said. “I’m actually surprised there wasn’t a couple lower scores today. I could have shot one of those, obviously.
“It still is the kind of course that you still have to hit the ball well to score. It’s a good mix, but if you strike the ball nicely, it feels like you can make a lot of birdies.”
Morgan made seven birdies on Friday, tied for the most in the field. Similar success this weekend could lead to a significant moment in his young career.
“Playing good is motivating me more than getting out of that position,” Morgan said. “Winning the tournament is more motivating than getting out of the bottom four. That’s what I want to do.”
Smith, his captain, said: “I’m very proud of him; he’s a great player. This is what he should be doing every day.”
Here are the standings and counting scores for Friday’s opening round of the team competition at LIV Golf Chicago. The three best scores from each team count in every round for their total team score. The team with the lowest cumulative score after three rounds wins the team title.
1. STINGER GC (-13): Louis Oosthuizen 66, Charl Schwartzel 67, Dean Burmester 67
T2. FIREBALLS GC (-12): Sergio Garcia 66, Carlos Ortiz 67, Eugenio Chacarra 68
T2. CRUSHERS GC (-12): Anirban Lahiri 66, Charles Howell III 67, Bryson DeChambeau 68
4. RIPPER GC (-11): Jediah Morgan 66, Marc Leishman 67, Cameron Smith 69
T5. 4ACES GC (-10): Patrick Reed 67, Peter Uihlein 68, Dustin Johnson 68
T5. TORQUE GC (-10): Sebastián Muñoz 66, Joaquin Niemann 67, David Puig 70
T5. SMASH GC (-10): Jason Kokrak 67, Brooks Koepka 68, Matthew Wolff 68
8. RANGEGOATS GC (-9): Thomas Pieters 67, Talor Gooch 68, Bubba Watson 69
9. MAJESTICKS GC (-6): Sam Horsfield 69, Ian Poulter 69, Lee Westwood 69
10. IRON HEADS GC (-3): Scott Vincent 67, Kevin Na 70, Danny Lee 73
11. HYFLYERS GC (-2): Cameron Tringale 68, Brendan Steele 69, James Piot 74
12. CLEEKS GC (-1): Graeme McDowell 70, Richard Bland 71, Bernd Wiesberger 71