KUALA LUMPUR (Reuters) - Justin Thomas enjoyed a welcome return to Kuala Lumpur on Thursday when the American kicked off the defense of his CIMB Classic title by surging into a share of the lead at the $7 million co-sanctioned event.
Thomas, who claimed his one and only PGA Tour title at the TPC Kuala Lumpur course last year when he edged out Adam Scott by a stroke, tallied nine birdies and a lone bogey in his first round this time to sign for an eight-under-par 64.
"It was a good day, it was solid. If there's any such thing as an easy eight under, that was it," Thomas said in a post-round interview.
Derek Fathauer, who was bogey-free for his round, and Keegan Bradley matched Thomas's total to move top of the leaderboard as the American trio opened a one-shot advantage over in-form Englishman Paul Casey in the second event on the 2017 PGA Tour.
Anirban Lahiri sits alone in fifth place after bogeys on his last two holes prevented the Indian from grabbing a share of the lead, one clear of a quartet of players that includes Sergio Garcia and Brendan Steele, who won last week's Safeway Open.
Thomas made a fast start with three birdies in five holes but a bogey on the par-four sixth stalled his progress and two more pars left the 23-year-old struggling for momentum as he approached the ninth tee on two-under for his round.
After finding the middle of the fairway with his drive, a pinpoint approach shot to within five feet set up the first of six birdies in eight holes as he reacquainted himself with a course on which he seems to thrive.
"I just kind of went along with my business today," Thomas added. "I hit it real close and made a few putts, it was a pretty low-stress day.
"It was fun, I haven't had the opportunity to defend before so it's fun to be back and people know who I am. Hopefully an experience I will get to feel a lot."
American Patrick Reed (68) and Spaniard Rafa Cabrera Bello (69), who faced each other at the recent Ryder Cup, made solid starts while Ian Poulter, vice-captain of the defeated European team, continued he return from injury with a one-under-par 71.
The event is co-sanctioned by the Asian Tour.
(Writing by John O'Brien in Singapore; Editing by Peter Rutherford)