ATLANTA — A 1-under-par 69 Thursday wasn’t exactly what Dustin Johnson was looking for in the opening round of the Tour Championship at East Lake Golf Club.
But considering his history on the course and in the event, his lack of accuracy Thursday, and the meddlesome doubts about his swing that crept into his mind for much of the day, the 69 might have to be considered a victory.
“I thought that not feeling so good over the golf ball that I did pretty well today,” Johnson said. “I didn’t know where the [heck] it was going.”
Johnson is tied for 12th in the 30-player, $8 million tournament, three strokes behind co-leaders Justin Rose and Tiger Woods. The Tour Championship culminates the four-event FedEx Cup playoffs, with the Cup winner earning a $10 million bonus.
Johnson entered the playoffs seventh in FedEx Cup points, and has a good chance to claim the FedEx Cup title with a win.
The 69 is just his third score in the 60s in 13 tournament rounds at the 7,154-yard par-70 East Lake. He made two birdies and a bogey.
Johnson hit 6 of 14 narrow fairways and 11 of 18 greens, and found himself in nine bunkers Thursday. He was 4 of 6 on sand saves from greenside bunkers and also saved par from fairway bunkers on the par-4 fourth, eighth and 17th holes.
“I really didn’t play that great. I scored really good,” Johnson said. “I got up and down a lot with my short game and putted it pretty well. It’s definitely the best start I’ve ever gotten off to here.”
It in fact matches the best opening round for Johnson. He carded a 69 in his first appearance at East Lake in 2009, but he played the final three rounds 10-over par with rounds of 74, 73 and 73. He opened with rounds of 70 and 73 in the past two years.
“I’m chipping and putting it really good. I feel good around the greens here,” Johnson said. “I need to drive it a little straighter and get a little closer to the hole, but you can’t get it close to the hole if you’re in the rough, it’s impossible.
“So when I’m in the rough all day it feels like I’m playing defense, I’m trying to hit my second shot somewhere I can make a 4 or have a good look at 4. Rather than when you drive it in the fairway, then you can attack and get some good looks at birdies. I just didn’t have enough opportunities to do that today.”
Johnson birdied the par-5 ninth hole from a greenside bunker by holing a 14-foot putt that turned about 18 inches to the right, but he bogeyed the par-4 12th when his flop shot over a pine tree from the rough following a 330-yard drive found a front bunker and he missed a 10-foot par putt.
He was unable to get up and down for birdie from a greenside bunker on the 15th hole, missing a 15-foot putt. “You can reach both of the par-5s, which is nice,” Johnson said. “You’ve got to take advantage of those. I birdied 9, but I missed a putt on 15.”
Johnson returned to red numbers on the par-4 16th, hitting a wedge downhill from 146 yards to within a foot. “I had a perfect number,” he said. “It was just a nice little wedge. I feel comfortable with my wedges and feel I’m hitting good shots with those.”
Though birdie opportunities were limited Thursday, Johnson played the par-3s well. He had birdie putts inside 10 feet on both the 220-yard second and sixth holes, and left a 20-foot putt on the 180-yard 11th on the lip. “I hit some good shots on the par-3s and I hit some really good putts,” Johnson said. “The putt on 2 and putt on 11 I thought were going in the hole. I really feel good with the putter. The putter’s rolling nicely right now and I’ve just got to hit it a little closer.”
Johnson saved pars with a bunker shot to 6 feet on the fourth hole, chips to within 5 feet on the fifth and eighth holes, a bunker shot to 3 feet on the 10th and a chip to 9 feet on the 13th. He fittingly closed his round with a 5-foot par putt for a sand save on the par-3 18th.
“I just barely missed some fairways, but out here you can’t barely miss, you’ve got to hit it in the fairway,” Johnson said.
His familiarity with East Lake despite his lack of success on the layout helped Johnson salvage a decent round Thursday, as his misses were generally in advantageous places.
“The more you play this course the more you figure it out – certain sides of the fairway you need to be on, and when you do miss the fairway where to hit the next shot so you’ve got a chance to get up and down,” Johnson said. “A lot of flags and a lot of these holes if you miss it on the wrong side you have no chance. I’m doing a better job of that.”
Johnson hopes to combine his solid short game with unfettered confidence in his swing, which he’ll try to regain on the range Friday morning before he tees off at 12:55 p.m. with Sergio Garcia in the second round.
“It’s close to being really good,” said Johnson, who finished in the top six in each of the first three playoff events. “I’ve been playing really well the last three events. I’ve just got to get back in the groove a little bit.”
Contact ALAN BLONDIN at 626-0284.