KING ABDULLAH ECONOMIC CITY, Saudi Arabia (AP) — Thomas Pieters shot 7-under 63 to take a two-stroke lead on Thursday after the first round at the Saudi International, a new European Tour event being held amid scrutiny of the kingdom’s human-rights record and condemnation following the killing of journalist Jamal Khashoggi.
Pieters made seven birdies and was bogey-free around the Royal Greens Golf and Country Club, where the world’s top three players — Justin Rose, Brooks Koepka, and Dustin Johnson — are playing.
None are within four shots of the lead, with No. 3-ranked Johnson faring best after a 68. Koepka shot 69 and top-ranked Rose bogeyed the last hole for an even-par 70.
The 76th-ranked Pieters, whose last top-10 finish came at the Czech Masters in August, felt his game was coming together in his first two starts of 2019 in Abu Dhabi (16th) and Dubai (29th) but said his putting let him down.
He gave himself easier birdie opportunities at the Saudi International by hitting his wedges and short irons close, notably at the par-3 17th when his approach settled at tap-in territory for…