DUSTIN JOHNSON admitted an opening 66 in the US PGA Championship was as easy as he made it look, but the hard part will be converting that into an overdue first major title after numerous near misses.
Johnson carded an eagle, five birdies and a solitary bogey to lead a major championship for the fifth time this year, setting a testing six-under-par clubhouse target that none of the afternoon starters could match due to a strengthening wind.
Sweden’s David Lingmerth briefly caught Johnson after 14 holes but three-putted the next and had to settle for an impressive 67, one shot ahead of a group of seven players which included Australian Jason Day and Matt Kuchar of the United States.
English pair Justin Rose and James Morrison were another shot back on three under, with defending champion Rory McIlroy and Jordan Spieth both one under.
The last time the US PGA was held at Whistling Straits in 2010, Johnson was one shot ahead with one to play and thought his bogey on the 18th meant he would be heading into a play-off with Martin Kaymer and Bubba Watson.
However, the 31-year-old was then penalised two strokes after it was ruled he had grounded his club in a fairway bunker before hitting his second shot, even though spectators had been trampling all over the hazard.
Johnson had also squandered a three-shot lead in the final round of the US Open two months earlier and he three-putted the 72nd hole at Chambers Bay this year to finish a shot behind Jordan Spieth.
The world No 8, who led after the first and second rounds of the Open before fading badly at St Andrews, started on the back nine and made birdies on the 10th and 11th before holing from 30 feet for an eagle on the 16th.
Further birdies on the first and second were followed by a bogey on the third, where playing partner Rickie Fowler needed four shots to escape a bunker and took seven, but Johnson bounced straight back with a birdie on the fourth.
“[Thursday] was pretty easy, I would have to say,” Johnson said. “I was swinging well and I was hitting the shots where I was looking and I really felt like I was just super patient, stayed focused all day.
“I played pretty well at the US Open on the weekend. At the British Open I didn’t play well on the weekend, but even the first two days I didn’t feel like I was playing that good golf. I wasn’t too comfortable with my swing. I wasn’t hitting the shots that I wanted to hit. I didn’t feel like I was too much in control.
“[Thursday], I really felt like I had my ball under control a lot like I did at the US Open. We’ll just have to see what happens. It’s only the first round, we’ve still got a lot of golf to play.”
Lingmerth started the Open Championship with a front nine of 29 and took 31 to cover the back nine at Whistling Straits after starting from the 10th as he looked to build on his play-off victory over Rose in the Memorial Tournament.
“I have been near the last group the last few tournaments and that’s good practice for tournaments like this,” Lingmerth said. “I have not had the opportunity to win a major yet, so hopefully that will come on Sunday.”
McIlroy admitted he was “pretty nervous” at the start of his first round after a seven-week injury lay-off, but after a three-putt bogey on the first the world No 1 hit a three wood from 286 yards onto the second green to set up an easy birdie.
The 26-year-old then produced a remarkable escape on the fifth, rolling up his right trouser leg to hit his fourth shot from the edge of a water hazard and holing from 12 feet for par.
“The only thing I was trying not to do was get my feet wet,” said McIlroy, who felt he was not to blame for his group being timed for slow play from the 15th.
“If the water gets through this (left) shoe, then the tape [on his ankle] gets wet and then that would be annoying or uncomfortable for the rest of the day. It was a little bit deeper on the right side, so I just rolled my right trouser leg up and it was fine.”
Spieth, who is looking to become only the third player after Ben Hogan and Tiger Woods to win three majors in a year, followed 10 straight pars with a three-putt bogey from 15 feet on the 11th, but chipped in on the 12th and also birdied the 16th.
“Under par was a good round this afternoon,” Spieth said. “Whatever David (Lingmerth) ate this morning, I’d like to eat [Friday], because that’s a heck of a round of golf in those conditions.
“I definitely had chances to shoot a lower score, but the saves at the end there on 15 and 17 were huge.”
Collated first round scores (USA unless stated, par 72):
66 Dustin Johnson
67 David Lingmerth (Swe)
68 Matt Jones (Aus), Scott Piercy, Matt Kuchar, Danny Lee (Nzl), Jason Day (Aus), Harris English, J.B. Holmes, Russell Henley
69 Brendan Steele, Justin Rose (Eng), Thomas Bjorn (Den), James Morrison (Eng)
70 Hideki Matsuyama (Jpn), Marcel Siem (Ger), Martin Kaymer (Ger), Robert
Streb, Charles Howell III, Emiliano Grillo (Arg), Paul Casey (Eng), Yong-eun
Yang (Kor), Anirban Lahiri (Ind)
71 Steve Stricker, Francesco Molinari (Ita), Rory Sabbatini (Rsa), Jason McNeill, Rory McIlroy (Nirl), Sang-moon Bae (Kor), Ernie Els (Rsa), Brian Gaffney, Brandt Snedeker, Jordan Spieth
72 Soren Kjeldsen (Den), Mikko Ilonen (Fin), Justin Thomas, Marc Warren (Sco), Billy Horschel, Bernd Wiesberger (Aut), Lee Westwood (Eng), Brendon De Jonge (Zim), Louis Oosthuizen (Rsa), Bubba Watson, Hunter Mahan, Phil Mickelson,
Kiradech Aphibarnrat (Tha), Sergio Garcia (Spa), Morgan Hoffmann, Luke Donald
73 Graeme McDowell (Nirl), Charl Schwartzel (Rsa), Brooks Koepka, David Howell (Eng), Chesson Hadley, Nick Taylor (Can), Kevin Chappell, Kevin Streelman, g), Vijay Singh (Fij), John Daly, Bill Haas, Jim Furyk, Rafael
Cabrera-Bello (Spa), Rickie Fowler, Ryan Moore
74 Shawn Stefani, Pat Perez, Steven Bowditch (Aus), Danny Willett (Eng), Geoff Ogilvy (Aus), Matt Every, George Coetzee (Rsa), Thongchai Jaidee (Tha), Kevin Na, Daniel Berger, Cameron Smith (Aus), Adam Rainaud, Shaun Micheel, Troy Merritt, Jason Bohn
75 Tiger Woods, Ryan Palmer, Byeong-Hun An (Kor), Bob Sowards, Sean O’Hair, Boo Weekley, Jimmy Walker, Kevin Kisner, Patrick Reed, Zach Johnson, J.J. Henry, James Hahn, Ian Poulter (Eng), Brett Jones (Aus), Camilo Villegas (Col), Tim Clark (Rsa)
76 Ross Fisher (Eng), David Hearn (Can), Ryan Helminen, Ben Martin, Matt Dobyns, Martin Laird (Sco), Charles Frost, Henrik Stenson (Swe), Chris Wood (Eng), Adam Scott (Aus), Brent Snyder, Alex Cejka (Ger), Keegan Bradley, Victor Dubuisson (Fra), Ben Polland, Stephen Gallacher (Sco), Miguel Angel Jimenez (Spa), Brendon Todd, Rich Beem, Carl Pettersson (Swe), Padraig Harrington (Irl)
77 Omar Uresti, David Toms, Hiroshi Iwata (Jpn), Alexander Levy (Fra), Grant Sturgeon, Tommy Fleetwood (Eng), Steven Young (Sco), Johan Kok (Rsa), Russell Knox (Sco)
78 Nick Watney, Andy Sullivan (Eng), Shane Lowry (Irl), Colin Montgomerie (Sco), Eddie Pepperell (Eng), Brian Harman, Darren Clarke (Nirl), Cameron Tringale
79 Koumei Oda (Jpn), Charley Hoffman, Davis Love III, Sean Dougherty, Pablo Larrazabal (Spa), Jeff Olson, Fabian Gomez (Arg), Marc Leishman (Aus), Jamie Donaldson (Wal), Ryan Kennedy
80 Joost Luiten (Ned)
81 Richie Ramsay (Sco)
82 Austin Peters
83 Brian Cairns
84 Mark Brooks
87 Alan Morin
89 Daniel Venezio