Although Gavin Kyle Green plays nearly all of his golf outside the U.S., a leaderboard with the name Justin Thomas emblazoned near the top doesn't phase him.
Green is Malaysia's top-ranked golfer, and he represented the country at last year's Olympics. He's in the midst of a strong season on the Asian Tour, where he has built a healthy lead in the Order of Merit race following a win three weeks ago at the Taiwan Masters.
But before he turned pro, Green was an All-American at the University of New Mexico, where he occasionally crossed paths with Thomas and frequently clashed with PGA Tour Rookie of the Year Xander Schauffele at nearby San Diego State. That familiarity could pay dividends this week at the inaugural CJ Cup in South Korea, where Green shares second place behind Thomas after an opening-round 66.
"I've always wanted to come out here. I've always wanted to be on the PGA Tour. It's always been my goal since I was young," Green told reporters. "Playing a lot with Xander, and I played a couple of events with Justin. I definitely want to be out there with them. It's fun. I love it out here. Hopefully something good happens next couple weeks."
Green started on the back nine and birdied six of his first 10 holes to quickly vault into contention. At 6 under, he trails Thomas by three shots and shares second place with Marc Leishman, Chez Reavie, Patrick Reed and Scott Brown.
The 23-year-old is in the midst of a pivotal three-week stretch during which he has a chance to size up his game against the world's best. He finished T-61 in the 78-man field at last week's CIMB Classic, where he admitted the pressure of playing at home, combined with a balky putter, led to a frustrating result.
But he's off to a good start this week on a new venue, and has already locked up a spot in next week's WGC-HSBC Champions in China. Should he hang on to the top spot in the Order of Merit, more playing opportunities are sure to follow next year, but Green is keenly aware that a strong result this week could go a long way towards earning more PGA Tour starts for 2018 and beyond.
"Today I played real decent," Green said. "I'm just trying to play my game. This week obviously a lot of pressure is off. I'm just trying to enjoy myself out here."