UNIVERSITY PLACE, Wash. – As Dustin Johnson was being shuffled from TV interviews to radio interviews to print media interviews, he asked an official: “Is this the last one?”
Nope, he was told, one more to go. A similar thought probably crossed Johnson’s mind 30 minutes earlier as he was finishing his opening round at the U.S. Open. He was 6-under par and making a run at the major championship scoring record (63) but he settled for par after smashing his drive on his 17th hole, the par-5 8th.
A poor tee shot on No. 9 led to bogey, the only blemish on Johnson’s 5-under 65 Thursday at Chambers Bay. He shares the lead with Sweden’s Henrik Stenson, who birdied four of his last five holes. Patrick Reed (66) is third, one shot in front of Matt Kuchar, amateur Brian Campbell and Ben Martin.
Jordan Spieth, Jason Day and Jason Duffner are among seven players at 68. Phil Mickelson made three birdies in the first eight holes but he cooled off on the back side and shot a 69. Rory McIlroy (72) had 34 putts and only two birdies.
Chambers Bay ate up several big names. Tiger Woods ballooned to an 80, his worse U.S. Open score by three strokes, and Rickie Fowler shot an 81.
Johnson and Stenson were in the morning session and took advantage of pleasant temperatures, light breezes and a fairly tame set-up at the links-style course.
“I thought the conditions were favorable,” Johnson said. “It’s firm but you could control your ball for sure. I did a really good job with that all day.”
Bombing drives with distance (336.5-yard average) and accuracy (11 of 14 fairways) to generous landing areas, Johnson was rarely in trouble through 17 holes.
“My speed (on putts) was pretty good all day,” Johnson said. “All of them looked like they had a chance to go in and when I missed I had a tap-in. The greens are real fine, they’re a little bumpy, but it’s like that for everyone. I think speed is important so you can get those tap-in pars.”
Johnson was at his best from holes 4-7, considered by some as the toughest stretch on the course. He was 3 under on those four par 4s, including birdies on No. 7, which ranked as the toughest hole, and No. 5, the third toughest.
Stenson, a four-time PGA Tour winner with nine victories on the PGA European Tour, averaged 300 yards per drive but the rest of his stats were virtually identical to Johnson’s. Stenson buried four mid-range putts totaling 95 feet for birdies at 14, 15, 16 and 18.
“I felt like I was really keeping my patience and a level head,” Stenson said. “It was a good day on the greens, but especially the last five holes.”
Gareth Lord, Stenson’s caddy, took a spill in Wednesday’s practice round and sported a cast on his injured wrist.
“It might be broken or just torn ligaments,” Stenson said. “He’s not in a good place but he managed to caddy and he did a good job. I had to caddy for him a little bit as well.”
Johnson, who has nine career wins, withdrew from last week’s tour event in Memphis after shooting 38 on the first nine holes.
“I just wasn’t feeling well,” he said. “I got to rest a little bit. I went and saw (instructor) Butch (Harmon), got a couple of hours work with him and then came up here and got to see the golf course. It’s a course that you do need to see a couple times before you play.”
A little over a year ago, Golf Digest listed Stenson No. 1, Kuchar No. 3 and Johnson No. 6 in its rankings of best players who haven’t won a major. Johnson held the 54-hole lead at the 2010 U.S. Open before shooting an 82 at Pebble Beach. He was assessed a two-stroke penalty for grounding his club in a bunker on the 72nd hole of the 2010 PGA Championship at Whistling Straits, costing him a chance at a playoff.
Players expect tougher course set-ups as the tournament progresses.
“The USGA typically has a formula where they start out and it’s quite playable Thursday, Friday,” said Kuchar, who missed just two fairways and hit 15 of 18 greens in regulation. “I think we’ll see it teeter on the edge come Saturday, Sunday. I think they’ve got it down pretty well at this point.”
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