Johnson finds putting touch

Dustin Johnson putting on the 12th green during the first round of the Players Championship on the Stadium Course at TPC Sawgrass on Thursday.
Dustin Johnson putting on the 12th green during the first round of the Players Championship on the Stadium Course at TPC Sawgrass on Thursday.PHOTO: AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE

Using new putter and green-reading system, American sends strong message at Players

PONTE VEDRA BEACH (Florida) • World No. 1 Dustin Johnson hopes that a new putter and a new putting method will help turn around his fortunes at a premier golf championship that has mystified him for years.

He got off to the right start on Thursday at the Players Championship, taming the sometimes diabolical TPC Sawgrass to shoot a bogey-free six-under 66 and join five others with the first-round lead.

The 33-year-old is in his 10th Players event, where he has finished better than joint-28th only once, that being a tie for 12th last year.

TPC Sawgrass and its greens have always had the upper hand on him, so this time around, he switched things up.

He used the AimPoint method of reading greens for the first time in competition, and used a smaller version of the mallet putter that pushed him to the No. 1 ranking.

He hit 17 of 18 greens and gained 2.075 strokes putting, making 111 feet worth of putts and no three-putts.

GOOD START

I don't think I putted very well around here as a whole. That's the one thing I've struggled with around here, and obviously today I rolled it nicely.

DUSTIN JOHNSON, world No.1 golfer, who is using the AimPoint method of reading greens for the first time in competition.

He said: "I don't think I putted very well around here as a whole. That's the one thing I've struggled with around here, and obviously today I rolled it nicely."

On a day when the winds stayed down and there was little defence for the golf course, 38 players shot in the 60s. Johnson was joined at 66 by four other Americans - Webb Simpson, Matt Kuchar, Chesson Hadley and Patrick Cantlay - as well as Alex Noren of Sweden.

Kim Si Woo, who a year ago at 21 became the youngest winner in the championship's 44-year history, was a shot off the lead. The South Korean matched the lowest opening round by a defending champion set by Jack Nicklaus in 1977.

"I can hit it better," Kim said. "If I was to win again, I feel like it would be dreaming, as that's too hard. This is just the first round. I'm going to keep working hard."

Johnson started his round on the back nine and ran off six birdies in an eight-hole stretch beginning at the par-five 11th.

His latest challenger for the No. 1 spot, Justin Thomas, shot a 73.

This is a big week, and if Johnson keeps winning, he will not be caught atop the rankings soon. But he could lose the top spot if he finishes 12th or worse.

"It was definitely a big deal to get there, and it's a big deal to stay there, I think," said Johnson, who has been the top-ranked golfer for 64 weeks.

The day's premier grouping included another player well versed in being No. 1, Tiger Woods, who played with Phil Mickelson at TPC Sawgrass for the first time since 2001 and for the first time overall since the 2014 PGA Championship. There were not many fireworks in their group, which was filled out by Rickie Fowler.

Woods made an 18-footer for eagle at the par-five ninth hole, but needed to salvage bogey at the par-four 18th to shoot a 72. Mickelson, who said he lacked energy and focus, carded a 79, his highest opening round at the Players since 2000. Fowler shot a 74.

Woods was making his eighth start of the season just weeks after the anniversary of his fourth back surgery. He hit only five of 14 fairways, twice having to chip out of the woods on par-five holes, and never did get much going.

"I felt like today the way I was hitting the golf ball, especially toward the back nine, that I felt like I should have shot something in the 60s, but didn't do it," he said.

NYTIMES, AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE

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A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on May 12, 2018, with the headline 'Johnson finds putting touch'. Print Edition | Subscribe