RIDGELAND, S.C. – Jon Rahm thought his 7-iron from 195 yards had come up well short of the pin because of a long shadow across the green. Moments later, he heard the crowd react to a shot that came an inch from going in on the hardest hole at Congaree.
The way his day went, Rahm should have expected that.
He found the middle of the clubface on just about every shot and put on an exhibition Friday at the CJ Cup in South Carolina, making 10 birdies in his round of 9-under 62 that gave him a share of the lead with Kurt Kitayama.
Coming off a victory two weeks ago in the Spanish Open, Rahm hardly looked like a player who is easing his way toward the end of the year.
He ran off four straight birdies on the front nine, all of them inside 10 feet. He holed a bunker shot from 60 feet on the par-4 eighth, made a 35-footer on the par-3 10th and then capped off three straight birdies with his shot into the 17th that grazed the edge of the cup. Only four other players made birdie on that hole in the second round.
So good was this round he mentioned two swings in particular that felt perfect, and those were two he didn't convert for birdie.
“It was a lot of good out there today,” he said.
Needing one last birdie for his career-low round, Rahm's wedge into the 18th rolled off a steep slope and came to rest against a bunker rake. His pitch was strong, rolling 30 feet by and he made his lone bogey.
Kitayama, the 29-year-old Californian who spent his first six years on the Asian and European tours, holed a tough bunker shot for eagle on the par-5 12th for a 65 and joined Rahm at 11-under 131.
Aaron Wise spent time on a putting drill after his opening round and it paid off for him in his round of 66. He was two back, along with Cam Davis (66). Rory McIlroy (67) was two strokes behind the leaders at 9 under.
Tom Kim, going for his third PGA Tour victory in his last six stars, was hanging with McIlroy until a late bogey dropped him into a tie for sixth, four shots behind. McIlroy birdied the 18th to cap off a 30 on the back nine.
McIlroy, the defending champion who can get to No. 1 if he wins, was more worried about what Rahm was doing in the group ahead of him.
“I was trying to hang on to Rahm's coattails,” McIlroy said.
He was an example of how it doesn't take much to get out of position at Congaree, a fast course with severe slopes around the edges of the green. McIlroy short-sided himself twice, and while he wasn't off line by much, it was enough to cost him two shots on the front nine.
And then he holed a 30-foot putt at the par-3 10th and was on his way.
Kitayama played earlier was never too far from the lead until his round took a turn for the best on the par-5 12th hole. He was in the right bunker, a popular place to miss, and thought his ball was running a little hot until it hit the pin and dropped for eagle.
“Went in dead center, so that was good,” Kitayama said.
He added a pair of 10-foot birdie putts late in the round and has a share of the lead going into the weekend for the first time in his short PGA Tour career.
The UNLV grad took a while to get back home — he once played a developmental tour even in Asia where he was paid in cash on the spot after winning — but it couldn't be a better time. He finished 40th in the FedEx Cup his first year. That means he will be in at least eight of the elevated events next year that offer at least $20 million in prize money.
As late as it is in the year, Rahm is still going strong. The Spanish Open is important to him, and he won it for the third time to tie his national hero, Seve Ballesteros. He still has designs on being Europe's No. 1 with the DP World Championship next month in Dubai.
“It's Thanksgiving, so probably put on a few pounds,” Rahm said. “Not that I need them, but I'm for sure going to be joining that club like everybody else most likely.”
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