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Smith leads in return to career-sparking CIMB

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Cameron Smith is out in front in his return to the event where it all began.

Three years ago, Smith was a 21-year-old Aussie in search of a spark to get his career off the ground. He found it in Malaysia at the CIMB Classic, where he surprised many with a T-5 finish that helped him gain footing on the PGA Tour. He went on to finish T-4 at the 2015 U.S. Open at Chambers Bay and has played primarily in the U.S. ever since.

Smith returned this week to Kuala Lumpur equipped with a two-year exemption on Tour after he teamed with Jonas Blixt to win the Zurich Classic of New Orleans in April. He took a big step toward his first individual win with a bogey-free 64 Thursday amid steamy conditions that left him one shot clear of the field.

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Full-field scores from the CIMB Classic

"I've been around here a few times before. Obviously played quite a bit in Asia," Smith told reporters. "So I feel like it's just back to what it was a few years ago. So yeah, it's pretty easy for me to read the greens and get some putts going."

A birdie on the par-5 third hole got Smith's round in gear, as he recorded five birdies in a seven-hole stretch from Nos. 3-9 to make the turn in 31. He added three more birdies over his final five holes to move one ahead of a trio of contenders that includes former major champ Keegan Bradley and newly-minted Rookie of the Year Xander Schauffele.

Smith credited his time spent growing up in Brisbane, Australia, as a key to handling the Malaysian heat and humidity, and after coming up just short of his first career Tour Championship berth he is eager to begin his quest anew.

"I've been playing pretty good of late," said Smith, who finished T-12 at the BMW Championship in his most recent start. "Just had three weeks off, so it was a good mental break for me and I feel really fresh."