Valero Texas Open: Russell Knox drives his way to the top, Jordan Spieth and Rory McIlroy struggle

Very few stars thrived on Thursday in San Antonio, but the race for a last minute invitation to the Masters is on.

After posting a superb 7-under-par 65 on the Oaks Course at TPC San Antonio, good for a one shot first round lead over Rasmus Hojgaard in the Valero Texas Open, Russell Knox admitted that he has been working hard behind the scenes this year.

The Scot has been a constant on the PGA Tour for a decade but, having landed two wins in 2015 and 2016, he has seen a dip in his standards; he landed 10 top 10s in those two years and managed just one apiece in 2020 and 2021.

Already he has doubled that tally for 2022 with tied seventh in the Sony Open and tied sixth in THE PLAYERS Championship.

"It's been nice to see a little success because sometimes when you're putting in work you don't get results and it's very demoralizing," he said. "But I've practised hard and I'm starting to see some benefits.

"Off the tee's been kind of important for me. Over the last couple years I got off track slightly and was hitting a few wayward tee shots. We've really gone back to fundamentals, got my setup correct and it just gives me the freedom to kind of swing away.

"I know it's never going to be perfect, but the last couple months it's really been a strength of mine again."

And it needed to be on a course famous for being difficult if wayward from the tee.

"This course, if you get offline, it can be very penal," he said. "I took care of business off the tee, which was nice, iron play was solid again and just had a couple of those good luck moments that gave the round momentum. Chip-in on 7, good up-and-down on 6, great up-and-down on 9."

Victory this week offer the prospect of more than just a trophy, a large winner's cheque and an exemption. There is also the small matter of an invitation to the Masters for whoever is not already exempt.

"I would love to win and get to play next week, that's obviously why I'm here and why everyone should be playing," Knox said.

"But no, zero extra pressure. It would be the biggest bonus of the year if it happened, but I'm quite happy to sit on the couch with my dog next week, too.

"Obviously I say that, but I mean, I'm going to try my hardest to finish first this week."

Rasmus Hojgaard off to a flier

Following a month out of action with a bad back the Dane Rasmus Hojgaard is on a roll.

After getting a start in the Corales Puntacana Championship last week he opened with a stiff 73 to lie right on the cut mark, but responded with three laps of 67 that saw him complete a PGA Tour career-best finish of tied sixth, earning him more action this week.

He then thrashed six birdies and an eagle-3 to be on the brink of bettering Knox's score only to trip up with a double bogey-6 on the ninth, his last hole of the day.

"I haven't checked the facts yet, it feels like I hit a lot of greens," he said. "But I putted amazingly. It's the best I've putted for a long time and that just builds some confidence and I felt I could be aggressive on the greens."

He was correct on both scores: he hit 15-of-18 greens in regulation and ranked first for Strokes Gained Putting (4.206).

"It feels good," the three-time DP World Tour winner said of playing on the PGA.

"It's not much different, you go out there and just try to play as good as you can and if you're playing well and you're up there on the leaderboard, it's just great. It's not something you walk around thinking of in the first round."

Spieth and McIlroy watch

As discussed earlier this weekJordan Spieth likes to prep at a tournament the week before the Masters, whereas this week's attendance is a little more unusual for Rory McIlroy.

How are they faring after 18 holes? Both signed for level-par 72s that leave them fighting to play the weekend and seven shots back of the leader.

That marks Spieth's fifth-worst start in his seventh visit to the course, and his first failure to end the first round in the top 10 in his last four starts there.

He swapped one birdie and one bogey in a lap that saw him struggle to make any sort of headway.

He ranked 48th Off the Tee, 76th with Approaches, 20th Around the Greens, 127th for Putting and 36th Tee to Green.

McIlroy may be less fretful about history. His only previous course visit also witnessed a level-par start before he scooted through the field to finish second.

His round, however, was a run mix of six birdies, six bogeys and six pars, while his stats rankings were nothing better than 42nd Off the Tee, 99th with Approaches, 90th Around the Greens, 70th for Putting and 83rd Tee to Green.

Both will be looking for far more as encouragement for next week's Green Jacket quest.

READ MORE: Valero Texas Open: Rory McIlroy opens up on Masters scouting mission

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