Keeping Score

Johnson shines at Players’ star show

PONTE VEDRA BEACH, Fla. – Welcome to another edition of the Players Championship, a cauldron of surprises where You Never Know meets WTF?!?

For instance: The Golf Channel’s very excellent analysts discussed Wednesday night the complex reasons why no Players champion has successfully defended his title. There were a lot of factors, but our experts agreed on one thing: It wasn’t going to happen this year, either.

Thursday, defending champion Si Woo Kim shot 67 with two bogeys on his last three holes and stood only one stroke back (scores).

An alleged Internet golf pundit made a bold pre-tournament prediction that the No. 1 world ranking definitely will change hands after this weekend at the Stadium Course. Thursday, ahem, No. 1-ranked Dustin Johnson shot a bogey-free 66 as easily as riding a jet ski in a no-wake zone, shared the lead and looked like the golfing force that we know he is.

Dustin Johnson takes a big step toward preserving his No. 1 world ranking and winning his first Players Championship with a first-round 66 to share the lead.

Dustin Johnson takes a big step toward preserving his No. 1 world ranking and winning his first Players Championship with a first-round 66 to share the lead.

The PGA Tour decided to showcase its biggest stars by cramming them into two threesomes, a calculated play to snag weekday TV viewers. Rory McIlroy, Justin Thomas and Jordan Spieth went out as the morning edition of The Big Three. Tiger Woods, Phil Mickelson and Rickie Fowler were the afternoon’s Even Bigger Three.

Thursday, this show turned into the viewing equivalent of the Hindenburg crashing onto the deck of the Titanic just before it went under the waves. Woods eagled the ninth hole with three pretty fine shots, but the low point was when Mickelson and Fowler rinsed shots in the lake at the infamous par-3 17th.

The first trio shot a combined 3 over par. The second group shot 9 over.

On a day when the leaderboard was lit with 68 red under-par numbers, those results were wretched.

Keith Mitchell, a Players rookie, didn’t find out that he was in the tournament until midday Wednesday when Paul Casey withdrew because of a back problem. Mitchell, a University of Georgia alumnus, fired a 67. Steve Stricker, who is 91 years old and lives inside a glacier in Wisconsin (maybe I’m exaggerating slightly – he’s really 51 and resides in Madison, where the glacier usually recedes each April), had five birdies and an eagle and also posted 67.

This much we know at the Players: You never know. 

The Tour’s hoped-for story of the day was Woods, Table for Three. However, the more significant news, what with a pair of Opens on deck in the next two months, might be Johnson. Maybe it seemed as if he went on vacation after he won at Kapalua and was co-runner-up at Pebble Beach on the West Coast Swing. He did have a sneaky T-10 finish at Augusta, but he hasn’t been motoring along at No. 1-like speeds. 

Johnson revamped his putting process after two fruitless weeks on the greens at the Masters and Hilton Head. He switched putter models and adopted AimPoint, a low-tech method of using an arm and two fingers to discern a putt’s break.

Something clicked.

“I just wasn’t making enough putts,” Johnson explained in his matter-of-fact style. “I’m a feel putter anyway, and the way you’re doing it is you’re just feeling it. So, it definitely works. I’m very pleased with the way I putted today.”

There is only thing that he doesn’t like about the alignment method. “Holding up my fingers,” Johnson dead-panned. When a group of writers finished laughing, Johnson grinned and added, “I don’t like that part, but if I putt like this, I’ll keep doing it.”

Johnson has been the No. 1 player in the world since February 2017. With victories by Thomas, Jason Day and McIlroy this season, the recent talk of a change atop the Official World Golf Ranking has been understandable. Johnson delivered a strong message in the opening round that he’s not going anywhere, a message made even more impressive by his past history at the Stadium Course. This is his 10th Players, and Thursday’s 66 was only his fourth round in the 60s here in 31 tries. Johnson tied for 12th last year, his only career top-25 finish here.

Thursday’s play could be a sign that the ball is still firmly in Johnson’s court regarding the pack of players trying to inch past one another atop the rankings. Not that one round at the unpredictable Stadium Course means too much, because you never know.

“It’s harder to stay at No. 1 than it is to get there,” said McIlroy, a former No. 1 himself. “Once you’re there, you have a lot of ranking points to defend, and there’s a lot that goes into that. There shouldn’t be added pressure, and obviously, Dustin doesn’t look like he feels anything on the golf course. The impressive thing is staying there for as long as Dustin has.”

You think that Johnson cares about the possible No. 1 permutations? Using one of his favorite answers, Nahh. “I just want to play good golf,” he said.

You think he was bothered by his poor track record at the Stadium Course? Nahhh. “I don’t remember any of that stuff,” Johnson said.

The uncluttered golf mind is a dangerous one. 

For the two marquee groups, it’s not a great start to spot Johnson a handful of strokes in the opening round. McIlroy had four birdies, one of them a chip-in, during his 71, and Thomas had five, also with a chip-in, but incurred a double bogey at the par-4 15th en route to 73. Spieth, who missed the cut here during his last three appearances, hit three balls into the water and shot 75. Mickelson finished with 79, Fowler 74 and Woods, who saved bogey at the 18th after splashing his tee shot, 72. 

It may prove costly that those three didn’t take advantage of optimal scoring conditions.

“It looked like it played easy out there,” McIlroy said with chagrin, “but it didn’t feel like that in our group, with what we shot. There wasn’t much wind, and the greens were pretty receptive. You could have shot a low one.”

Today is a new day. McIlroy’s group will play in the afternoon wave (tee times). It’s usually tougher because the sun bakes the greens during the day, and the Florida wind often strengthens.

Often, not always. You never know … y’know?

Gary Van Sickle has covered golf since 1980 for Sports Illustrated and, Golf World and The Milwaukee Journal. Email:; Twitter: @GaryVanSickle

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