SHEBOYGAN, Wis. (AP) — Already tied for the lead, Dustin Johnson was in position for more Thursday in the PGA Championship. He was in the fairway on the par-5 second hole at Whistling Straits and faced a “perfect 3-wood” to reach the green for a sure birdie or even better.
So he laid up with a 5-iron.
“I wanted to try to make today as easy as possible,” Johnson said. “And it worked out.”
He made birdie and opened with a 6-under 66, giving him a two-shot lead among the early starters. If it were to hold up, it would be the fifth time in 13 rounds at the majors that Johnson has had at least a share of the lead.
Just not on Sunday.
And that’s why he wanted to get off to an easy start. Even in the midst of his best year in the majors, Johnson has had a hard time.
Nothing stung more than the U.S. Open at Chambers Bay, where three putts from 12 feet on the final hole took him from a chance to win his first major to a runner-up finish behind Jordan Spieth. He had the 36-hole lead at the British Open until a 75-75 weekend.
And one round into the PGA Championship, here he is again.
“Right now — today — I really felt like I had my ball under control, a lot like I did at the U.S. Open,” Johnson said. “So I feel a lot more comfortable right now. We’ll just have to see what happens. It’s only the first round. We’ve still got a lot of golf to play.”
Making the start more meaningful is where it took place — Whistling Straits, scene of one of his many miscues.
Five years ago at the PGA Championship, Johnson had a one-shot lead on the final hole when he grounded his 4-iron in the bunker without realizing it was a bunker. He made bogey, and the two-shot penalty knocked him out of a playoff won by Martin Kaymer.
There was no chance of a repeat Thursday. The sand where he grounded his club has been covered by a grandstand area. Besides, he smashed his drive far and left, leaving him nothing more than a 7-iron to the green. He missed a sharp-breaking birdie putt from 10 feet.
More on his mind than what happened five years ago is what happened the last two months in the majors.
Johnson was quick to disagree with one question that his final rounds have not been as good as his opening rounds — by the numbers that might be true, though that doesn’t take into account that golf courses tend to play harder on the weekend in the majors.
And he wasn’t reading too much into the opening round except that he likes how he’s playing.
The biggest surprise was St. Andrews. Johnson started so well that even Spieth said it would take his very best golf to beat him. By the end of the week, it was Zach Johnson who had his name on the claret jug. Dustin Johnson tied for 49th.
Johnson knew he was in trouble at the British Open, though. He said he wasn’t driving the ball well at St. Andrews and it caught up with him. He wasn’t playing well at Firestone last week, either. But he said he worked hard the last three days at Whistling Straits and could feel his game turning around on the final day of practice.
And it showed on a breezy morning.
“I put in a lot of work, and I finally started hitting the ball back to where it was … the whole year, really,” Johnson said.
He told swing coach Butch Harmon he was going to “send it” on just about every tee shot. Instead, he went conservative on the easy 10th hole at the start of his round and made birdie, then had only a 7-iron left for his second shot into the par-5 11th for another birdie. He really got going with a 4-iron to 30 feet for eagle on the 16th.
“Today was pretty easy, I would have to say,” Johnson said. “But I was swinging well and I was hitting the shots where I was looking. So anytime you’re doing that, it makes things a lot easier on you. The ball was going where I was looking. I was controlling it. In this wind it’s tough to do, but I did a great job of controlling the golf ball today.”