Zach Johnson started off golf’s first major championship of the year Thursday at the PGA Championship with a resounding 4-under 66, one stroke behind the leaders in a tie for third.
Starting off in the morning from the 10th tee at the municipal course TPC Harding Park, Johnson took the early lead thanks to a hot putter and consistent driving.
He also took advantage of early scoring conditions and beat the morning wave scoring average of 70.54 quite comfortably during cloudy but uncharacteristically still winds for San Francisco.
“(The course) is not gettable, but it was gettable today. With minimal winds and obviously decent temperatures, this is what I remember this course playing the three other times I competed here,” said Johnson, remembering his visits here in the 2005 WGC-American Express Championship, the 2009 Presidents Cup, and the 2015 WGC Dell Technologies Matchplay.
“This is kind of how I remember it. It’s a little longer, but this is how I remember it.”
One of the big keys to Johnson’s fast start was his work on the greens.
“I was leaving them short in my practice rounds, and if I thought about, oh, man, don’t leave it short, then you knock it way by,” he said. “It just felt like the speed was where it should be today. I putted great. It didn’t matter if I made it or missed it.”
Johnson ranked first in the strokes gained: putting stat (4.756 gained on the rest of the field), and he finished the round with an amazing 23 total putts.
“(My putting) was really good. I hit some shots close and then obviously started to make some putts and the confidence came,” Johnson said.
Johnson noticed that the greens seemed faster Thursday and he expects that to continue into weekend.
The 44-year-old should also give himself credit for some deft chipping touch Thursday as well. Though he missed eight greens, he got up and down seven times, a trend that could serve him well as the week goes on. For example, on the 18th, his ninth of the day, he negotiated a tricky lie just right of the green and stuck his chip to 2 feet, ensuring he remained leading at the time at 4-under.
Johnson went on to make a 30-foot bomb at 3 for birdie to get to 5-under. Though he’d drop a shot late on arguably the hardest hole on the course at 8 as he finished, he still kept a great start intact.
TPC Harding Park is hosting its first major this week and Johnson is going to keep his intensity level as even as possible even though there’s more at stake this week compared to regular Tour events.
“I don’t feel, like, inward I’m that much more intense. I just feel like in a major you can’t get ahead of yourself, and this is a venue where it’s very difficult to get ahead of yourself,” Johnson said.
“Every shot is so, well I mean, it’s demanding, and that’s great. It’s fair, it’s just demanding.”
Johnson doesn’t consider himself a very good player when hitting out of the rough because he is so shallow with his angle of attack,
“Fairways are a premium, so my driver has been the emphasis (in practice),” Johnson said. “It was streaky today, but when it was good, it was really good. It seems to me like our driver has kind of been the emphasis, outside of the obvious things, putting and whatnot. You’ve got to make putts.”
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This week marks Johnson’s sixth tournament start since the Tour restart began with his best finish, a tie for 11th at Travelers last month.
The veteran begins his second round at 3:33 p.m. CT Friday paired with fellow Open champion Henrik Stenson and the red hot Collin Morikawa.