Sports

Johnson enjoys best ever Players round

Johnson enjoys best ever Players round

Dustin Johnson, his world No. 1 ranking under siege, took advantage of flawless morning playing conditions to earn a six-way share of the first-round lead at the Players Championship on Thursday.

Alex Noren and Webb Simpson also were at 66 among the early starters Thursday.

The well anticipated group of Tiger Woods, Phil Mickelson and Rickie Fowler did not light up the leaderboard. Johnson and the early birds couldn't ask for better scoring conditions at the TPC Sawgrass.

Johnson became No. 1 in the world when he won the Genesis Open previous year and has stayed atop the world rankings since.

So he had one of his coaches, Allen Terrell, teach the method to Austin Johnson, his brother and caddie. "So my mindset today was just to be as smart as I can and stay away from those big numbers".

"It was definitely a big deal to get there, and it's a big deal to stay there, I think", Johnson said. So it definitely works.

"I felt like it was a really solid round", said Johnson, who started at the 10th and went out in five-under 31 before picking up his sixth birdie at the par-five second. That might be a little bit different tomorrow afternoon. "I'm very pleased with the way I putted today".

That's been the story of the TPC Sawgrass over the years - a design that doesn't favor one particular style of play. "I think the weekend is more important", Kim said. "I make AJ do that".

McIlroy was the only player from those two groups who managed to break par.

Last year's victor Kim Si-woo put himself firmly in contention after a five under 67 left him just one shot adrift of the leaders. He had to settle for a 67, still a strong start considering that no one has ever won back to back in the PGA Tour's premier event.

There was another logjam of six players at 67, including rookie Keith Mitchell and 51-year-old Steve Stricker.

On at least nine holes, Woods had some form of a wedge - pitching, gap or sand - and was rarely able to hit it close, as his two birdies attest.

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"I knew I was going to drop a shot, but didn't want to shoot over par for the round", Woods said.

Last week, it was poor putting.

"I'm fine, good", he said, but added he wasn't yet thinking about a repeat title.

Justin Rose, who could take over as world No 1 with a victory on Sunday, is just two off the pace along with prospective Ryder Cup team-mates Henrik Stenson, Jon Rahm and Sergio Garcia, who held the lead outright until becoming one of many to find water at the 17th.

Jordan Spieth struggled in posting a shock three-over 75 that included a 12th hole eagle promptly followed by a double-bogey at the very next hole.

"It could have been better". I could have been probably a little worse, as well.

"It was actually quieter out there than I thought it would be", McIlroy said.

But he couldn't resist his attacking instincts at the 18th and pulled a driver into the lake before getting up and down from 110 yards for a bogey five, making a 12 footer.

Johnson doesn't have a great track record on the Stadium Course. The timing couldn't have been better, especially with his No. 1 ranking on the line. Mitchell birdied his opening four holes, made seven birdies over his first 11 holes and was slowed only by a double bogey on the par-3 third. The bonus was on the 18th, when his 35-foot birdie putt had plenty of speed as it swirled into the cup.

Johnson started his round on the back nine and ran off six birdies in an eight-hole stretch beginning at the par-5 11th. But it was free of stress, too.

For example, Woods never had more than a 6-iron to a par-4 on Friday but ranked 108th in the field in strokes gained, approach to the green.


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