Erik van Rooyen, of South Africa, studies his third shot...

Erik van Rooyen, of South Africa, studies his third shot on the 15th hole during the first round of the Mexico Open golf tournament in Puerto Vallarta, Mexico, Thursday, Feb. 22, 2024. Credit: AP/Fernando Llano

VALLARTA, Mexico — Erik van Rooyen made two eagles Thursday on his way to an 8-under 63 for a one-shot lead in the Mexico Open at Vidanta, a strong start in his bid to win a second PGA Tour title in Mexico in the last four months.

Van Rooyen hit 3-iron to 6 feet for eagle on the par-5 sixth hole at Vidanta Vallarta, and then pitched in on the par-5 12th for a second eagle. His lone mistake was a soft bogey when a straightforward chip ran 7 feet by the hole at the 15th and he missed the par putt.

Sami Valimaki of Finland, one of the 10 players from the European tour who earned PGA Tour cards this year, shot 64. He salvaged par when he hit a fairway metal into the hazard on the par-5 sixth, followed by a drive to 12 feet for eagle on the reachable par-4 seventh.

Cristobal del Solar of Chile, who set the Korn Ferry Tour record two weeks ago with a 57 in the Bogota Championship, was among those at 65.

Van Rooyen was raised in South Africa, played college golf at Minnesota and can't explain why he has such a good feel for golf in Mexico.

He won the World Wide Technology Championship last November at Cabo San Lucas, an emotional victory coming a week before his college teammate died of cancer. Four years ago, his first time in serious contention on a big stage was the World Golf Championship at Chapultepec in Mexico City. He played in the final group with Patrick Reed and Justin Thomas and tied for third.

But coastal courses and the altitude of Mexico City are nothing alike.

Erik van Rooyen, of South Africa, watches his tee shot...

Erik van Rooyen, of South Africa, watches his tee shot on the second hole during the first round of the Mexico Open golf tournament in Puerto Vallarta, Mexico, Thursday, Feb. 22, 2024. Credit: AP/Fernando Llano

“If I think about Chapultepec a few years ago, the WGC we had there was kikuyu grass, bent grass greens, that’s what I grew up on. A little bit different here,” van Rooyen said. “I don’t know what it is — got to be the food, the people, the whole shebang.”

The timing doesn't hurt. Van Rooyen was able to get into the AT&T Pebble Beach Pro-Am, one of the signature events, because the field had to be filled to 80 players with amateurs (he finished 65th in the FedEx Cup last year). The Mexico Open is the first of two PGA Tour events in which the leading five players get into the next signature event at Bay Hill.

He cared more about how well he was swinging, particularly his irons. The evidence came on the sixth hole, when his approach hopped off the fringe and rolled to 6 feet.

“Greedily, I feel like I left a few out there,” van Rooyen said “Then again, a shot like 6, the 3-iron I had into that par 5 turned out great. I’m not planning to hit it to 6 feet to that flag. A give-and-take in golf, and really happy with the round.”

Erik van Rooyen, of South Africa, tees off on the...

Erik van Rooyen, of South Africa, tees off on the 16th hole during the first round of the Mexico Open golf tournament in Puerto Vallarta, Mexico, Thursday, Feb. 22, 2024. Credit: AP/Fernando Llano

Del Solar was joined at 65 by David Lipsky, Henrik Norlander of Norway and MJ Daffue of South Africa. Thorbjorn Olesen of Denmark, who on Wednesday received a special invitation to play in the Masters, was in the group at 66.

Defending champion Tony Finau drove into the water on the par-4 eighth, his 17th hole of the round, and took double bogey. He finished with a birdie and opened with a 69.

The tournament follows a busy West Coast Swing of Pebble Beach, Phoenix and Riviera, and it comes a week before the Florida swing starts on the road to the Masters. It attracted only four players from the top 50 in the world ranking.

The winner gets an invitation to the Masters. Only eight players in the field, including special invitations to Olesen and Ryo Hisatsune, are already eligible.

Santiago de la Fuente of Mexico opened with a 67. He also is headed to the Masters from winning the Latin America Amateur Championship last month.

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