Johnson reminds why he's No. 1 at THE PLAYERS Championship
May 10, 2018
By Cameron Morfit, PGATOUR.COM
Dustin Johnson's birdie train continues on No. 16 at THE PLAYERS
PONTE VEDRA BEACH, Fla. – If Dustin Johnson started at No. 1; Jason Day, Rory McIlroy and Jordan Spieth want to get back to No. 1; and Jon Rahm, Justin Rose, Justin Thomas and Spieth actually could get to No. 1, then by the law of hypothetical syllogism and the transitive property…
Oh, never mind.
After copious No. 1 chatter at THE PLAYERS Championship, Thursday’s first round suggested the new No. 1 might end up being the same as the old No. 1. Johnson used a new putter and a new putting method to shoot 66 and seize the early lead with Sweden’s Alex Noren and 2012 U.S. Open champion Webb Simpson.
“It was definitely a big deal to get there,” Johnson said of the top ranking, which he could lose to Thomas (73), Spieth (75), Rose (68) or Rahm (68) this week. “And it's a big deal to stay there, I think. Yeah, I mean, I like being No. 1, so I want to stay there.”
Defending champion Si Woo Kim and late addition Keith Mitchell, who got into the field when Paul Casey withdrew, were part of a foursome at 67, one shot back after the morning wave.
Johnson, though, was the talk of the morning. His 66 was his best by two at TPC Sawgrass, where he was averaging 72.43 coming into this week. He hit nine of 14 fairways, 17 of 18 greens in regulation, and made six birdies and no bogeys.
Dustin Johnson's 34-foot birdie on No. 18 at THE PLAYERS
It’s rare to categorize a world No. 1 as a surprise leader, but Johnson has looked wobbly here since he shot a second-round 80 to miss the cut in his first PLAYERS in 2008. His recent results on TOUR weren’t exactly encouraging, either. He looked lost in going 0-3 at the World Golf Championships-Dell Technologies Match Play, and was never really in contention at the Masters (T10) and RBC Heritage (T16).
The culprit, he said, was his inability to make anything on the greens, and indeed the fact that he holed over 111 feet of putts Thursday was a happy surprise. Using a new TaylorMade putter and the Aimpoint green-reading technique for the first time, he finally capitalized on his ball-striking.
“I felt like at Augusta and Hilton Head I was hitting a lot of good putts that were not going in the hole,” Johnson said. “I needed to figure out something. I still feel like I read the greens really well. It’s helped with getting a definite spot to putt at, where I want the ball to start. I felt like today we read ’em all really well. There were no surprises.”
As for all the talk about his tenuous position atop the Official World Golf Ranking, that was another matter. When Rickie Fowler won here in 2015, much of the buzz was around a player poll that tagged him as overrated. Fowler obliterated all that with his clubs. Did all the No. 1 chatter get to Johnson? Was his opening statement here a reminder not to write him off too soon?
He said no.
“I don’t care what people talk about,” Johnson said. “It doesn’t bother me. I want to play good golf.”
Rory McIlroy (71) has been to No. 1, and said he’s been impressed with how long Johnson has held onto the top spot.
“I think he's done a great job because I feel it's harder to stay there than it is to get there,” said McIlroy, who lost the No. 1 spot to Spieth in the summer of 2015.
Rose, one of the four who could take over in pole position if everything breaks his way this week, found himself leaderboard-watching Thursday but quickly diverted his attention away from the No. 1 ranking as Johnson piled up the birdies.
“I thought I better play well this week to not go miles behind him again,” Rose said.
Johnson’s coach, Claude Harmon III, with whom Johnson worked at the Floridian last week, said that while Johnson may downplay it, the laconic, 33-year-old South Carolinian had heard the No. 1 speculation concerning himself, Thomas, Rahm, Rose and Spieth.
“Absolutely,” Harmon said. “There are not a lot of people walking around who have gotten there, and if you’re lucky enough to get a chance to get to No. 1, then you always want to stay there. D.J. is far more competitive than people realize.
“It’s certainly something that drives him,” Harmon added. “One of the weird things in golf right now is that he’s the No. 1 player in the world, and there are so many other stories right now that he doesn’t really get talked about. Sometimes that works in your favor; you can just do what you do and let your clubs do the talking.”
So far, so good for Dustin Johnson, whose clubs said it all Thursday.