It looked early Thursday morning like Dustin Johnson hadn’t missed a beat.
Johnson made birdies on three of his first seven holes to quickly appear at the top of the leaderboard at the 15th Wells Fargo Championship, right where he was the last time he played in a PGA Tour event in late March.
A back injury incurred on the eve of the Masters and inactivity for most of the past four weeks because of a painful deep bruise figured to have Johnson rusty.
The Coastal Carolina alumnus was unable to keep up the torrid pace at Eagle Point Golf Club, but a 2-under 70 Thursday has him tied for 15th heading into Friday’s second round.
“I didn’t really know what to expect because I really haven’t played or practiced,” said Johnson, who said he may have played a little more conservatively than normal because of the layoff. “But I’m pleased with where my game is. My speed on the greens was really good I just didn’t really make any putts, and I felt like the swing was really good out there today. I thought I drove it nicely and hit a lot of good iron shots.”
Johnson, who has won his last three PGA Tour events, said his body felt good and he showed it with several drives of 320 yards or more. “Physically there are no issues,” he said. “I just need to get some rounds in and get some more reps.”
Johnson teed off on the 10th hole and birdied the par-5 12th with a 340-yard drive leading to a 7-foot putt, the 200-yard par-3 15th with a 10-foot putt and par-4 16th with a 335-yard drive and 140-yard approach to 6 feet.
I like it. I think it’s a good golf course. It’s challenging, the greens are perfect and the golf course is in perfect condition, so I enjoyed it.
Dustin Johnson on Eagle Point Golf Club on Thursday
Johnson hit 16 greens in regulation, making his only bogeys in the two instances that he missed greens – on holes 2 and 9 – after poor chip shots. He made one birdie on his second nine with a big drive and long pitch to 14 feet on the 360-yard par-4 seventh hole.
“I’m happy with the way I played. I didn’t score that great and didn’t hole many putts but other than that I played really well,” Johnson said. “I hit the ball great. The two greens I missed I didn’t have hard chips I just didn’t get up and down. All in all I’m very pleased with the day I had.”
Davis Love III, who played alongside Johnson and matched his 70, said 2 under was the worst Johnson could have shot considering how well he hit the ball.
Johnson missed seven putts inside 20 feet, including six that were for birdies. “I just didn’t roll it that well today. I played a lot better than my score,” Johnson said. “If I hit it like I did today over the next few days then I’ll be right there on Sunday.”
Johnson said he has been without pain in his back since late last week, just about the time he caught a cold. “This morning was really the first day I felt really good in the last five or six days. I felt good this morning warming up,” Johnson said. “The back has been good for the last week or so, I just got a cold or something.”
Back with a vengeance
Adam Scott, who at No. 11 in the world is the second-highest ranked player in the field behind No. 1 Dustin Johnson, has been off for three weeks since the Masters.
Scott, who has a 2-year-old daughter, is playing in just his eighth event of the 2016-17 season. But he doesn’t see the inactivity as a deterrent to focus or good play. He shot a 1-under 71 Thursday.
“Last week was a really intense week with training and getting myself back competitive again, fired up to play this week and next, and have a short three-week focus of putting in the hard yards and trying to get a result,” Scott said. “I feel that if you take the competition away from someone who truly wants to compete, then it doesn’t matter how long off they’ve had, they’ll be more hungry the longer you give them off.
“To me, if you sit me down for a few weeks, I’m ready to go and beat someone after I flick on the TV and watch guys winning on Sundays and think, ‘Okay, I need to get back out there now and try to beat people.’ ”
Five of Scott’s seven starts this season have resulted in top-15 finishes, but a tie for ninth in the Masters is his best finish and he sits 78th in FedExCup points. He was three shots off the Masters lead entering the final round but shot a 73 and finished seven shots behind Sergio Garcia’s winning total.
“I’ve had a very quiet season,” Scott said. “I played well at the Masters, which was obviously important. Unfortunately, Sunday wasn’t exactly what I wanted. I was just a little out of sorts and couldn’t get it going and didn’t challenge for the jacket. But other than that, there were lots of positives for me to take out of the Masters. I was finally hitting the ball well tee to green and just trying to put it all together and that worked out there nicely. So I feel like the game’s come into good shape.”
In eight Wells Fargo appearances, he has two top-10s, three top-25s and three missed cuts. The $7.5 million tournament, regardless of the venue, is a coveted title on the PGA Tour. “This is a great tournament, it’s a great course here as well. I would love to be the one-and-done champion here and put the Wells Fargo on my resume,” Scott said.
Brian Gay, who shot an opening-round 70 and is tied for 15th after the first round of the Wells Fargo, shed some light Thursday on how he got a spot in next week’s $10.5 million Players Championship and simultaneously earned Englishman Ian Poulter exempt status on the PGA Tour.
Both have played the early part of this season on a medical extension from last season, needing to earn a certain amount of money or FedExCup points in a certain amount of tournaments to retain their full status.
Poulter thought he finished just shy of the goal when he missed the cut two weeks ago at the Valero Texas Open, his final event of the extension, and was going to have to play the remainder of the season with conditional status.
Gay, 45, who has dealt with a back injury, tied for sixth in each of his last two starts – the RBC Heritage and Texas Open – to secure his card, but he didn’t have enough FedExCup points to qualify for The Players.
That led him to do some number crunching, and he discovered a discrepancy in the way points are doled out this season compared with last year, which was the season against which he was being measured.
The tour changed they way it awards points because it is eliminating earnings as a standard to retain tour status and going strictly to FedExCup points, and points have changed for players finishing outside the top 15 of an event.
Gay called PGA Tour executive vice president and chief of operations Andy Pazder with his findings last week, and Pazder called back within 24 hours. “He said, ‘I have good news, you’re in The Players,’ ” Gay said. “For me it was just about getting into The Players. When he told me that I thought for Ian, he just got his card back.”
Gay said he sent Poulter a message to the effect of “you’re welcome,” and Poulter said he intends to get Gay a present for his gift.