PONTE VEDRA BEACH, Fla., May 10 (Reuters) - Dustin Johnson, his world number one ranking under siege, took advantage of perfect morning playing conditions to charge into a share of the first-round lead at the Players Championship on Thursday.
Johnson notched six birdies at TPC Sawgrass to join fellow American Webb Simpson and Swede Alex Noren as clubhouse leaders on six-under-par 66.
Defending champion Kim Si-woo, of South Korea, was among a group one stroke behind on a morning of low scoring, but not all of the big names thrived.
Three-times major champion Jordan Spieth hit three balls into the water on his outward nine — the back nine — to post a three-over 75 that leaves him in danger of missing his fourth consecutive cut in the event.
Johnson, on the other hand, stayed out of trouble and used a hot putter to more than make amends for what he said was pedestrian iron play.
He has never finished better than 12th at the Players, due to mediocre putting, but you would not have known it from the way he rolled the ball on Thursday.
“I’ve struggled on the greens here. I feel like they’re tough to read but today I felt like I did a very good job reading the greens,” Johnson said.
“I haven’t the best record here but it’s a golf course that I like and I feel I should play well here.”
Johnson has been ranked number one for more than a year, but has four players nipping at his heels, and has to win on Sunday to be certain of retaining his ranking.
Justin Thomas, Jon Rahm, Jordan Spieth and Justin Rose all have a mathematical chance of going to number one, something Johnson shrugs off as nothing more than noise.
“I don’t care what people are talking about,” he said. “It doesn’t bother me.”
Kim, meanwhile, reached seven-under after 16 holes, but ran up two straight bogeys as he got a late case of the hooks.
“The last three holes I missed it a little but I know that miss and I’m going to fix it better for tomorrow,” he said.
After barely a breath of wind in the morning, a light breeze sprang up just after noon — not enough to be a huge bother to the afternoon starters, but probably enough to prevent anyone from going really low.
Tiger Woods, Phil Mickelson, Jason Day and U.S. Masters champion Patrick Reed were among the late starters. (Reporting by Andrew Both, Editing by Neville Dalton)