Thomas begins defense of CIMB Classic 6 shots behind leader

KUALA LUMPUR, Malaysia - Justin Thomas collected the Jack Nicklaus Award as the U.S. PGA Tour player of the year a couple of days before heading to Malaysia in a bid to win his third successive CIMB Classic.

Little wonder then the two-time defending champion was slightly off his game in the first round on Thursday, managing only a 2-under-par 70 to sit six strokes behind leader Cameron Smith of Australia.

Smith opened with a blemish-free 8-under 64 and leads a U.S. PGA Tour event after the first round for the first time in 64 starts.

Keegan Bradley, Xander Schauffele and Poom Saksansin of Thailand were tied for second at 7 under.

Brendan Steele, coming off a victory last week at the Safeway Open, had an opening 67 to be three shots off the lead.

Thomas has barely had time to catch his breath after winning the FedEx Cup and playing in the Presidents Cup. He won his first tour title here two years ago. He successfully defended it last year, and has had a transformative 2017 in which he's won five titles and his first major, the PGA Championship.

He's aiming to be the first player to win the same tournament three years in a row since Steve Stricker at the John Deer Classic from 2009-11.

Schauffele, the U.S. tour rookie of the year, said he was taking plenty of notice of how Thomas approaches this course and is trying to keep it simple.

''The rough has been up apparently compared to last year, that's what Justin told me,'' he said. ''I pretty much tried to copy everything that he did because I figured he's a good guy to imitate out here.''

Thomas mixed five birdies with three bogeys. Schauffele and Poom made seven birdies to go into early contention, while Bradley eagled the 12th hole to make amends for his sole bogey.

Smith, an Australian, posted a blemish-free round of eight birdies, including five on the front nine for a 64.

''The putting was easy actually,'' Smith said.

He's chasing his second title of the year after winning the Zurich Classic in April.

The American trio of Kevin Na, Gary Woodland, and Pat Perez were also in contention in the Asian Tour event after carding 66s.

Hideki Matsuyama, the 2016 runner-up, faltered with two bogeys to sit with Thomas in a tie for 23rd place.

Thomas begins defense of CIMB Classic 6 shots behind leader
  Got something to say? Leave a comment below!
Tiger sounds off after another strong showing at Arnold Palmer Invitational
It was a great two weeks of being in contention again. I feel like I'm getting a little better. Great playing by Rory today to win at the King's place. Arnie would have been proud of golf today and the charges!!!
McIlroy holes out with long birdie putt on 18
Watch out world, @McIlroyRory is BACK!
DeChambeau drops eagle on 16th hole
Perfect speed. 🦅💪 @B_DeChambeau is just one-shot back! #QuickHits
McIlroy extends lead with 3rd-straight birdie
🐦 THREE 🐦 STRAIGHT 🐦 @McIlroyRory can't miss! #QuickHits
Stenson came so close to tying the lead
😱😱 @HenrikStenson's birdie to tie the lead somehow lips out. #QuickHits
McIlroy cruising with 5th birdie in 9 holes 🔥
Five 🐦 on his last nine holes. McIlroy is on 🔥🔥🔥 #QuickHits
McIlroy takes outright lead with birdie on 13
Rory is ROLLING. @McIlroyRory takes the outright lead at 14 under. #QuickHits
Tiger moves to within 1 shot of lead with birdie on 13
A vintage Sunday charge. @TigerWoods is 3 under thru four holes on the back nine. #QuickHits
Tiger pars 11th with around-the-hole putt
🌀😲🌀 All the way around and in. #QuickHits
Rory making Sunday charge with 2nd straight birdie
The roars are getting louder for Rory after his second-straight birdie. 👀 #QuickHits
Tiger stuffs approach from 173 yards out to set up birdie
54 of 54 so far this week inside 9 feet. @TigerWoods has this 6 footer for 🐦 coming up. #QuickHits
Tiger slams putt off flag stick, reacts with laughter
Hit a house. That'll do. #QuickHits
Tiger takes vicious hack with big stick
Anyone catch the recoil speed on this one?
DeChambeau makes long birdie putt from fringe
Patrick Reed stuffs approach
Tiger opens final round with par
Tiger is off and running on Sunday. #QuickHits
Rose birdies back-to-back holes
Justin Rose is feeling it down the stretch. Two-straight birdies and just three back @APInv. 🌹 #QuickHits
Fowler clears bunker, puts ball within feet of hole from 186 yards out
Aggressive shot...can it clear the bunker... Right on line for @RickieFowler. #QuickHits
Tiger records 4th birdie of day on hole 11
Tee shot: 👍 Approach: 🎯 Putt: 🐦 #QuickHits