With his No. 1 world ranking at stake this week, Dustin Johnson sent a message to his pursuers with a resounding 6-under par 66 on Thursday to grab a share of the lead after the morning wave of the first round of The Players Championship in Ponte Vedra Beach, Fla.
Johnson does not have a strong record at TPC Sawgrass, with a 12th-place finish last year his only top-25 showing in nine previous starts. But with the winds calm and perfect scoring conditions in the morning, Johnson opened the tournament on the back nine and rolled in five birdies to make the turn at 5-under 31. He managed one more birdie on his closing nine to share the early lead with Webb Simpson and Sweden’s Alex Noren.
“Today was a pretty good day for scoring,” Johnson told the Golf Channel. “The greens were receptive, they’re rolling perfect. The course is in immaculate shape, and it’s going to firm up as the week goes on. The weather looks like it’s going to be really nice for the rest of the weekend, so it definitely will get a little be tougher as the week goes on.”
Simpson, who has four top-10s against just one missed cut this season, briefly held the clubhouse lead after his 66.
“I’ve learned that you’ve got to be really smart,” Simpson told the Golf Channel about playing TPC Sawgrass. “You’re going to have birdie opportunities every day, no matter how tough the golf course is set up, no matter how much the wind is blowing.
“You’ve got four par-5s – given the right wind, even I can get to all four of them. So they give you opportunities, but I’ve gotten into trouble in the past when I’ve gotten too aggressive, tried to make too many birdies and forced things. You can quickly make a big number. So my mind set today was just to be as smart as I can and stay away from those big numbers.”
Defending champion Si Woo Kim reached 7-under during his opening round before settling for 67 following a pair of back-nine bogies. The Korean who is attempting to become the first player to repeat as Players champion, was tied at 5-under along with American Keith Mitchell, South Africa’s Rory Sabbatini and Venezuela’s Jhonattan Vegas.
Lucas Glover, 38, has just one top-10 finish this season but is among a deep group of players two shots off the pace at 4-under.
“I think I’ve done a better job of … not figuring it out, you never figure it out, but I’ve done a better job of being less aggressive when I need to and more aggressive when I need to,” Glover told reporters of his approach at TPC Sawgrass. “I used to be just too aggressive and it didn’t work. And it’s more of let’s just get it in the fairway, even if you have to lay way back, sometimes you have to hit it in the middle of the green.
“And I’ve done a good job of that in the times that I’ve played well here. Took me a few years to learn that you didn’t have to overpower it, not that I can overpower it anymore.”
Four players have a chance to surpass Johnson for No. 1 this week. Jordan Spieth, the only one to have previously held the top spot, has a large hill to climb just to make the cut after opening with a 3-over 75 that saw him three-put the first hole and dunk three balls in the water in his first nine holes. World No. 2 Justin Thomas, No. 3 Jon Rahm and No. 5 Justin Rose all have a chance to rise to No. 1 for the first time in their careers.
“I definitely want to keep it,” said Johnson, who has spent 64 consecutive weeks at No. 1. “But I still have three more days of golf, and I’m going to have to play really well if I want to keep the No. 1 spot.
“With the game where it is right now, there’s a lot of really good players right at the top of the world rankings, so for me to stay up there I’m going to have to play really well.”
NOTES: All seven players to finish at 67 or better in the morning wave began their rounds on the 10th hole. … Mitchell was the last player in the field, gaining entry on Wednesday when England’s Paul Casey withdrew due to a back injury. Casey’s withdraw left 49 of the top 50 players in the field, meaning the 2016 U.S. Open is still the most recent tournament to feature the full top 50. … Reigning U.S. Open champion Brooks Koepka is making just his third start since missing nearly four months due to a wrist injury. He aggravated the injury on the driving range Wednesday when a golf cart drove in front of him, forcing Koepka to check his swing. He had an MRI and said he was not sure if he would tee it up until he arrived at the course Thursday and said the wrist was feeling better but not 100 percent.
–Field Level Media