PONTE VEDRA BEACH: Dustin Johnson, his world number one ranking under siege, took advantage of perfect morning playing conditions to charge into a share of the first-round lead at the Players Championship on Thursday.
Johnson notched six birdies at TPC Sawgrass to join fellow American Webb Simpson and Swede Alex Noren as clubhouse leaders on six-under-par 66. Defending champion Kim Si-woo, of South Korea, was among a group one stroke behind on a morning of low scoring, but not all of the big names thrived.
Three-times major champion Jordan Spieth hit three balls into the water on his outward nine -- the back nine -- to post a three-over 75 that leaves him in danger of missing his fourth consecutive cut in the event.
Johnson, on the other hand, stayed out of trouble and used a hot putter to more than make amends for what he said was pedestrian iron play. He has never finished better than 12th at the Players, due to mediocre putting, but you would not have known it from the way he rolled the ball on Thursday.
"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 reading the greens," Johnson said. "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 more than a year, but has four players nipping at his heels, and has to win on Sunday to be certain of retaining his ranking. Justin Thomas, Jon Rahm, Jordan Spieth and Justin Rose all have a mathematical chance of going to number one, something Johnson shrugs off as nothing more than noise.
"I don`t care what people are talking about," he said. "It doesn`t bother me." Kim, meanwhile, reached seven-under after 16 holes, but ran up two straight bogeys as he got a late case of the hooks.
"The last three holes I missed it a little but I know that miss and I`m going to fix it better for tomorrow," he said.
Meanwhile, The so-called `super group` at the Players Championship turned into a super flop as Tiger Woods, Phil Mickelson and Rickie Fowler fizzled in the first round. Woods was best of the bunch with an even-par 72 but that was hardly what the PGA Tour had in mind when it grouped the best two players of their generation with the popular Fowler at TPC Sawgrass.
What started as a massive early afternoon gallery thinned out to only a few hundred spectators by the 15th hole, though considerably more waited at the island-green par-three 17th for some end-of-day fireworks.
They instead saw damp squibs, as Mickelson and Fowler both found water at the 17th for matching double-bogeys. Woods, meanwhile, safely negotiated the penultimate hole with a par, only to yank an iron tee shot into the water at the par-four 18th, his safety-first strategy backfiring.
He did well to salvage bogey, ending the day six strokes behind the six tied for the lead, who include world number one Dustin Johnson and Swede Alex Noren. Woods at least gave fans one moment of excitement when he rolled in a 20-foot putt for eagle from the fringe at the par-five ninth.
"Boy, it was nice to turn the round completely around there," he said, before assessing the gallery. "They were into it early. Towards the back nine it started getting a little sparse. I think they might have tipped back a couple and got a little sleepy."
The quality of the golf did little to keep fans awake. Fowler shot 74, while Mickelson signed for a 79 after dropping seven shots in four holes from the 14th.
Mickelson looked more like an office worker than a golf pro in his long-sleeve buttoned shirt, and like many a middle-aged salary man, he had an afternoon energy issue. "I was worried about energy this week. And I just kind of ran out at the end," he said.
The same threesome will be back for a Friday morning encore, when Woods expects them to strike some better notes. "If it stays calm in the morning, you`ll see a bunch of guys go low," he said.