Dustin Johnson Deploys Brawn, Brains to Take One-Shot PGA Lead

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  • Johnson has 5 birdies, 1 eagle, 1 bogey for 6-under 66
  • American is seeking first major title after close calls

From his first swing, it was clear that Dustin Johnson had no intention of being conservative at the PGA Championship. He was also determined not to make dumb mistakes.

Starting on the 361-yard, par-4 10th hole at Whistling Straits, Johnson, one of golf’s longest hitters, swung freely, blasting the ball 310 yards down the left side of the fairway.

Butch Harmon, Johnson’s coach, had suggested his pupil hit a 2-iron off the 10th tee to put himself into a safe position. Johnson balked at the idea, telling the coach, “No. I’m going to send it and drive it on the green. I’m going to send it all day long,” Harmon said on the Golf Channel.

Send it, he did. But instead of using a driver, Johnson settled for a shorter-hitting 3-wood to start his day. It turned out to be a smart compromise.

“It was straight downwind and it was blowing pretty hard when we teed off,” Johnson told reporters. “If I hit driver, I’d have to go straight at the flag and there was nowhere to hit it. It ended up on the upslope just short of the green. It was just perfect.”

After a chip and a 16-foot putt, he walked off the green with the first of two straight birdies to start his round. Johnson ended the day with three more birdies, an eagle and one bogey for a 6-under 66, putting him at the top of the leaderboard, one ahead of Sweden’s David Lingmerth. Seven players are tied for third at 4 under.

On a windy day along the edge of Lake Michigan, most players who teed off early in the morning fared better than those in the afternoon. Tiger Woods, a four-time PGA Championship winner, wasn’t one of them and is in danger of missing the 36-hole cut in his third consecutive major for the first time in his career.

“Probably one of the worst putting rounds I’ve had in a very long time,” said Woods, who had 33 putts during his 3-over round of 75. Woods has broken par in only 3 of his past 15 major tournament rounds. “I just never had the speed right. I either left them short or blew them by.”

Jordan Spieth, the tournament’s 6-1 favorite after wins at the Masters and U.S Open earlier this year, shot 1 under. Spieth played with World No. 1 Rory McIlroy of Northern Ireland, who also shot 71, and British Open winner Zach Johnson, who matched Woods’s 75. It was McIlroy’s first official round since injuring his left ankle last month, keeping him out of the British Open.

“As you can see out there, the way I’m hitting the ball and the way I’m getting around the golf course, I have full confidence in it,” McIlroy said of his ankle. “It doesn’t bother me one bit.”

’Just Freakish’

There wasn’t much that seemed to bother Dustin Johnson, either. This week, the South Carolina native said he was determined not to suffer from mental mistakes and wanted to make his opening round “as easy as possible.”

“The ball was going where I was looking,” he said. “So anytime you’re doing that, it makes things a lot easier.”

Australia’s Jason Day, in the same group as Johnson, had a different word for his playing partner’s length off the tee, which left him with a sand wedge from 125 yards for his second shot on the 466-yard, par-4 fourth hole. 

“That’s just freakish,” said Day, who is two shots behind Johnson in a tie for third place. “‘To be able to do that is really a joke.”

With opening rounds of 65 and 65 in this year’s U.S. and British opens, Johnson is the first player in golf’s modern era to open three straight majors with rounds of 66 or better and the only player since 1958 to hold the lead after the first round in three consecutive majors.

“Today, I felt like a had my ball under control a lot like I did at the U.S. Open,” Johnson said. “I feel a lot more comfortable right now. All I’m looking for is a chance to get it done on the back nine on Sunday.”

Missed Chances

Johnson has had plenty of chances, though he hasn’t been able to finish one off and claim his first Grand Slam victory. Five years ago, he missed out on a playoff after grounding his club in a bunker on his last hole at the PGA Championship at the same Wisconsin course.

In the same year at the U.S. Open, Johnson held a three-stroke lead after three rounds before finishing with an 82. At the 2011 British Open, he was in position to challenge leader Darren Clarke when he hit a shot out of bounds to end his chances. This year, he missed a 12-foot eagle putt on the last hole of the U.S. Open and three-putted to give Spieth the win. Last month, he held the lead after two rounds of the British Open before finishing with rounds of 75 and 75.

With so many close calls, Johnson said he’s hopeful that this week could be different.

“We’ll just have to wait and see what happens,” Johnson said. “It’s only the first round. We’ve still got a lot of golf to play.”

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