Fast start fuels Fitzpatrick at WGC-St. Jude

Los Angeles (AFP) –


England's Matthew Fitzpatrick birdied the first four holes on Friday as he powered to a two-shot lead in the WGC-St.Jude Invitational in Memphis, where he is seeking a first US PGA Tour title.

The 24-year-old, who has won five European Tour titles since turning pro in the wake of a stellar amateur career, is seeking to improve on his best US Tour title -- a runner-up finish at Bay Hill this year.

He was in good position heading into the weekend of the elite World Golf Championships event at par-70 TPC Southwind after a six-under par 64 for a nine-under par total of 131.

He was two strokes in front of overnight leader Jon Rahm of Spain, Australian Cameron Smith and Americans Patrick Cantlay and Billy Horschel.

It was a further stroke back to Japan's Shug Imahira, who carded a 69 for 134.

Fitzpatrick's sizzling start owed plenty to crisp iron play. He rolled in a 26-foot birdie putt at the second, but stuck his approaches at the first and third eight feet from the pin and made those before landing his tee shot at the fourth nine feet from the hole and making that.

Unable to get up and down for par from a greenside bunker at the eighth, he drained seven-foot birdie putts at the ninth and 12th before making another long one at the 16th.

"My irons have been pretty good all year to be honest. My putter is what I've been struggling with," Fitzpatrick said. "That's obviously done well so far this week."

He admitted he was surprised at how the golf course was playing, having tested it on Tuesday when it was wet and playing long.

"Gave myself absolutely no chance," Fitzpatrick said, but added that the firmer, faster conditions changed everything.

"I definitely think if you can just keep giving yourself a lot of chances, playing to the smart areas of the green, hopefully there should be less mistakes."

A victory would see Fitzpatrick book a place in the US PGA Tour's season-ending playoffs. He's already pencilled in some time off in those weeks, and said qualifying would be a "bonus".

"Obviously I'd love to win," he said. "Winning a WGC is a goal of mine, but we're only halfway through the tournament so hopefully just keep pushing on and see where we end up."

Rahm, who surged to the first-round lead with an eight-under 62 on Thursday, had bogeys at three, four and 12 -- where he was in the water -- before his first birdie of the day.

- Koepka in touch -

He followed another bogey at 15 with birdies at 16 and 17 for a one-over 71 that put him on 133.

He was joined there by Cantlay and Smith, who both carded 68s, and Horschel, who fired a 66 that included a 22-foot eagle at No. 3 -- his 12th hole of the day.

Horschel's chance for solo second evaporated with a bogey at his final hole, the ninth.

Smith also closed with a bogey, at 18, his only miscue in a round that included three birdies.

World number one Brooks Koepka carded a 67 to head a group on 135 that also included England's fourth-ranked Justin Rose, Alex Noren, Ian Poulter, Bubba Watson and Webb Simpson.

Northern Ireland star Rory McIlroy and Japan's Hideki Matsuyama were among five players who were five off the lead on 136.