Dustin Johnson got to world No 1 by combining scintillating wedge play with enormous power and precision iron play.
Now, he’s looking to add deadly putting to his arsenal of weapons after a move to the AimPoint green-reading method helped him grab an early share of the lead in The Players in Florida.
While there are endless permutations, five players could claim Johnson’s world number one throne with a win at TPC Sawgrass in Jacksonville: Justin Thomas, Jon Rahm, Justin Rose, Jordan Spieth and Jason Day.
Rose opened with a 68, as Spieth played horribly for a 75, with the rest among the late starters.
However, 33-year old Johnson sent them all a clear “hands off” message when he opened with blemish-free 66 to share the early lead with Sweden’s Alex Noren and former US Open champion Webb Simpson, one stroke clear of Venezuela’s Jhonattan Vegas, defending champion Si Woo Kim from Korea, Web.com Tour graduate Keith Mitchell and South African veteran Rory Sabbatini.
US Open champion in 2016, Johnson tied 12th for his best finish in nine starts at the PGA Tour’s flagship event last year, but, taking advantage of ideal morning conditions, he missed just one green in regulation, rolling in six birdies in an exhibition of control, as Rory McIlroy was forced to grind out a 71 that left him closer to the projected cut line than the leading places.
He delivered that line with a smile on his face and, after changing to the AimPoint green-reading method just last week, he looks like a man who could be tough to shift.
“I felt like it was a really solid round,” said Johnson, who started on the back nine and went out on 31 with birdies at the 11th, 12th, 14th, 16th and 18th, and par-five second.
“I drove it very well and hit a lot of greens. I wasn’t too sharp with the irons, but I was still on the green and rolled the ball pretty well.”
Johnson tidied up from close range for his birdies at the 11th and 12th, but he made a 10-footer at the 14th, a 21-footer at the 16th, a 34-footer at the 18th and another 10-footer at the second. Explaining why he changed to AimPoint, he said: “At Augusta, I felt like I putted well, but I made no putts, so I am trying to get my aiming a little more precise and go from there.
“I felt like all the putts I had today I had the right reads on, which is something I haven’t been doing very well. I didn’t make them all, but even the ones I missed were the correct reads, so it’s working and I’m going to keep doing it.
Unlike Spieth, who started bogey-bogey-eagle-double-bogey and found water three times in his first seven holes en route to a disquieting 75, McIlroy got off to a good start on the Stadium Course’s back nine.
He birdied the 11th from 20 feet and two-putted the driveable 12th, before following a three-putt bogey at the 13th with an easy birdie four at the 16th to be two-under.
Unlike Johnson, who hit an iron from the tee and made birdie, McIlroy couldn’t resist his attacking instincts at the 18th and pulled a driver into the lake that guards the left side.
He recovered by getting up and down from 110 yards for a bogey five, making a 12-footer.
However, after taking four to get down from greenside rough at the par-five second, slipping back to level par, he chipped in for birdie at the fourth to get back into the red and had to work hard to play his last five holes in level.
Like the stellar threeball of Tiger Woods, Phil Mickelson and Ricky Fowler, Offaly’s Shane Lowry was among the late afternoon starters.
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