While most golf fans eagerly awaited the ‘Rory and Jordan’ show that was to unfold in the afternoon at Whistling Straits, the long-hitting American racked up an eagle at the par-five 16th, five birdies and a bogey to card a six-under-par 66.
Swede David Lingmerth, who won his first PGA Tour title at the Memorial Tournament in June, recorded the best score in the tougher afternoon conditions as winds gusted up to 28 mph (45 kph), firing a six-birdie 67 to finish a stroke off the pace.
It was a rewarding and timely opening round for Johnson, who five years ago incurred a two-stroke penalty on the final hole of the last PGA Championship to be played here that cost him a spot in a playoff for the title.
“I thought I did a great job of just staying patient, hitting the shots that the course allowed me to hit,” Johnson said of his opening round in the year’s fourth and final major. “And I struck the ball well today, so I was very pleased.”
Fellow Americans Matt Kuchar, Russell Henley, Harris English, J.B. Holmes and Scott Piercy, Australians Jason Day and Matt Jones, and New Zealander Danny Lee opened with 68s on the visually spectacular but challenging links-style layout.
World number one Rory McIlroy and second-ranked Jordan Spieth, who between them have won four of the last five majors played, were among the late starters in a marquee grouping with British Open champion Zach Johnson.
Watched by massive galleries, all three provided their share of the spectacular, along with a few mis-steps along the way, before McIlroy and Spieth wound up with matching 71s and Johnson with a 75.
The return from an ankle injury by McIlroy to defend his PGA Championship crown this week and Spieth’s bid to win a third grand slam title this year had marked out the season’s final major as extra special, and both remain in contention.
“It was a solid round of golf,” said McIlroy, after returning to competition for the first time in 40 days. “Happy with the way I struck the ball. I think anything under par this afternoon was a decent score.”
Masters and U.S. Open champion Spieth was delighted with the grit that he displayed during a round highlighted by a chip-in for birdie at the par-three 12th.
“I’m pleased with it,” said the 22-year-old American. “Under par was a good round this afternoon.
“We really battled back after 10 and 11, which were disappointing holes for me, to salvage an under-par round and really stay in this tournament.”
Spieth missed a 10-footer for birdie at the 10th and ran up his only bogey of the day at the par-five 11th, where he three-putted from 15 feet.
Four-times champion Tiger Woods, who won the most recent of his 14 majors at the 2008 U.S. Open, did not benefit from his early tee time as he mixed two birdies with five bogeys on the way to a 75.
“Well, I hit it great today, but I made actually nothing,” said Woods, who totalled 33 putts on the superbly manicured greens at Whistling Straits. “Probably one of the worst putting rounds I’ve had in a very long time.”
The 39-year-old American, whose world ranking has shockingly plummeted to 278th, has missed the cut in his last two majors and faces an uphill climb if he is to avoid a third in a row for the first time in his career.
Among the other big names in the field, twice Masters champion Bubba Watson and five-times major winner Phil Mickelson carded even-par 72s.
(Editing by Larry Fine)