It was more of the same for Dustin Johnson on Thursday in the first round of the Tour Championship at East Lake Golf Club.
Coming off his third victory of the season at the BMW Championship, the FedExCup points leader and most consistent player on the PGA Tour this year shot a 4-under-par 66 in the opening round and shares the lead with Kevin Chappell and Hideki Matsuyama.
“I was really relaxed out there today,” Johnson said. “I've got a lot of confidence in the game right now. So I'm looking forward to this week and seeing how good I can play.”
The Coastal Carolina alumnus carded five birdies and a bogey to match his second-best score at East Lake in 25 rounds, two shots off the 64 he shot in the final round last year.
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The season-long FedExCup points champion will be crowned and awarded a $10 million bonus at the conclusion of the Tour Championship, and Johnson has the inside track to it. His co-leaders are ranked 15th and 17th in the standings, and neither can win the FedExCup if Johnson finishes in the top eight.
“With the form Dustin Johnson's in, I don't think that scenario is going to happen for me,” Chappell said. “I've completely erased that from my mind. It's not going to happen. Even if I win the golf tournament. … But there's a chance to win a golf tournament, and that's all I'm really focused on.”
Matsuyama, ranked 18th in the world, has two wins in his three years on tour, including this year’s Waste Management Phoenix Open. Chappell is still seeking his first victory in six years on tour, but has three second-place finishes this season at the RSM Classic, Arnold Palmer Invitational and Players Championship, giving him five since 2011.
With the form Dustin Johnson’s in, I don't think that scenario is going to happen for me. I've completely erased that from my mind. It's not going to happen. Even if I win the golf tournament. … But there's a chance to win a golf tournament, and that's all I'm really focused on.
The top five in the standings are guaranteed the FedExCup title with a win Sunday, and of them, World No. 1 Jason Day is tied for fourth at 3-under 67 with Kevin Kisner and rookie Si Woo Kim, Paul Casey is tied for seventh at 68, Adam Scott is tied for 11th at 69, and Johnson’s playing partner Thursday, Patrick Reed, is tied for 18th at 3-over 73.
Johnson said he’s not paying much attention to the scenarios. “I’m not really thinking about it,” he said. “The only thing I’m thinking about is playing as well as I can play.”
Only 12 of the tournament’s 30 players broke par and two others were even par Thursday.
“If you're in the fairway, you know, you get a decent amount of short irons in your hand, but if you drive it in the rough all day, it's just no fun,” Johnson said. “I thought I wedged it nicely today and hit a lot of quality iron shots.”
Johnson began his round with a birdie. He hit his opening tee shot into a left fairway bunker and hit an 8-iron from 165 yards to 2 feet. “It was a very nice shot to start the day,” Johnson said. “I was just worried about getting it out of the bunker, but, obviously I hit it really solid. I mean, it was pretty close to the lip.”
He birdied the 452-yard par-4 fifth hole with a 20-foot putt despite a drive well left of the fairway, and followed it up with a 22-foot birdie putt on the par-5 sixth hole and made the turn 3 under.
He birdied the par-4 12th with a wedge to 3 feet but gave a stroke back on the par-4 13th with a drive beneath a few tree canopies to the right of the fairway and poor pitch that didn’t advance through the rough.
Johnson remained at 3 under with a key save at the par-4 14th, where he drove it amongst a few trees to the left, hit a low line drive into thick rough near the bleachers behind the green and made an 8-foot par putt.
He closed with a two-putt birdie on the par-5 18th, though his 360-yard downhill drive went through the fairway and stopped in rough on a slight downslope just a few feet from a water hazard.
“I didn't hit it hard off the tee,” Johnson said. “I just kind of hit a soft cut because I knew if I hit one hard there was a chance it was definitely going to go way through. I knew I was going to hit it right to the end.”
The 18th was officially a missed fairway, and Johnson hit eight of 14 fairways, missed five greens but managed par on four of them, and took 28 putts. It was a comfortable round of golf.
“I haven't struggled much this year,” Johnson said. “I feel like I've got a lot of confidence in the game, so it helps me stay relaxed and helps me stay focused.”
It has taken Johnson a few years to become more comfortable at East Lake. After finishing outside the top 20 in his first three Tour Championships, which feature no more than 30 players, Johnson has placed in the top 10 in his past three, including consecutive fifth-place finishes in 2013 and ’15. A high and dense rough places a premium on accuracy this year, especially off the tee.
“This golf course is just tough. It's a golf course where you've got to be on to shoot good scores,” Johnson said. “You know, last year I played pretty well. I was right there, I think, on Sunday. But it's just a golf course where it's difficult if you're not driving it straight.”
Of course Johnson hasn’t entered the season finale first in FedExCup points as he has this year, though he was second in both 2010 and ’11 entering the tournament.
“I feel like my game's better than it has been in years past,” Johnson said. “I feel like the all-around game is better. I feel like my short game's really good right now. I feel like I'm putting the ball really nicely, I'm driving it well. So I feel like my whole game is better coming in this time.”