PONTE VEDRA BEACH, Fla. (Reuters) - Dustin Johnson, his world number one ranking under siege, took advantage of perfect morning playing conditions to earn a six-way share of the first round lead at the Players Championship on Thursday.
Johnson wielded a new putter with precision, notching six birdies for a six-under par 66, his lowest ever score at TPC Sawgrass on a day when Tiger Woods could manage only a 72.
Johnson’s score was matched by fellow Americans Webb Simpson, Chesson Hadley, Matt Kuchar and Patrick Cantlay.
Swede Alex Noren was also among the leaders, one stroke ahead of a group including South Korean defending champion Kim Si-woo.
Not all the big names thrived in the benign conditions. Three-times major champion Jordan Spieth hit three balls into the water on his outward half — the back nine.
He posted a three-over 75 that leaves him in danger of missing his fourth consecutive cut in the event.
Phil Mickelson can probably start revving up his private jet for an early trip home after scoring 79, having dropped seven shots in a four-hole stretch from the 14th.
Johnson, however, stayed out of trouble, a hot putter more than making amends for what he said was pedestrian iron play.
He has never finished better than 12th here due to poor putting but a new method of reading the greens has helped.
“It’s definitely helped. It gives me a more definitive spot to aim at,” he said of the new method, which involves using the soles of one’s feet to discern the break.
“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.
“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 64 weeks but has four players nipping at his heels and needs to win to be certain of retaining top spot.
Justin Thomas, Jon Rahm, Spieth and Justin Rose all have a mathematical chance of dislodging him, a point Johnson shrugs off as much ado about nothing.
While Johnson has largely been out of the limelight since a fall down stairs knocked him out of last year’s U.S. Masters, his peers remain in awe of his game.
“I think D.J. plays amazing all the time,” Bubba Watson said after playing with him.
“He’s a freak when it comes to physical strength, and everything. (His) talent is amazing, so every time you play with him you look at something and learn something.”
They used to say the same about Woods, whose 72 included glimpses of his old magic, including a 20-foot putt curled in from the fringe at the par-five ninth.
He looked merely mortal at times, not least at the par-four 18th. He used an iron off the tee for safety but hooked the ball into water, before doing well to make bogey.
Reporting by Andrew Both,; Editing by Neville Dalton / Ian Ransom