THOUSAND OAKS, California (Reuters) - Zach Johnson, with his renowned wedge game in sparkling order, soared to the top of the leaderboard with a five-under-par 67 in Thursday’s opening round at the Northwestern Mutual World Challenge.
Twice a runner-up in the elite 18-player event hosted by world number one Tiger Woods, American Johnson mixed seven birdies with two bogeys to take control on a sun-splashed but chilly day at Sherwood Country Club.
Compatriot Matt Kuchar, a double winner on the 2013 PGA Tour, was alone in second after a 68 while five-times champion Woods had to settle for a 71 after missing a three-foot birdie putt at the last.
Johnson, who finished second at the 2011 World Challenge, was delighted with his opening round after the scheduled start of play was delayed by frost for an hour.
“I did everything decent, drove it well for the most part with the exception of probably the last hole,” Johnson, a 10-times champion on the PGA Tour, told reporters. “I wedged it really good.
“Any time I had a wedge in my hand, I seemed to be hitting my lines and my yardages, which is certainly key. I putted it great. Just a real solid day all around.
“I kept the course in front of me, I was aggressive when I needed to be aggressive and I was conservative when I needed to be conservative. But it’s nothing more than a decent start.”
Johnson was especially pleased that he managed to birdie four of the five par-five holes on the heavily undulating, Jack Nicklaus-designed layout.
“I hit it close,” the 37-year-old said. “I hit it close on two, I hit it close on 11, 13, and I hit it close on 16. I had good shots in there with the proper spin, nothing more than that.
“But you’ve got to take advantage of them (the par-fives). You’ve got five of them.”
Despite a perfectly manicured layout and very little wind, only five players in the field of 18 dipped under par in the opening round but Johnson was not at all surprised.
“First of all, there’s some tough pins,” he said. “Second, it’s that time of year where some guys are trying to shake rust off. That may be part of it.
Woods, who won the most recent of his five titles here in 2011, was a little frustrated with his score after missing short putts on both his first and last holes.
“I made a few mistakes today, I also hit a couple of good shots that ended up in some interesting spots,” the 14-time major champion said. “That can happen out here. Maybe I could have gotten one or two more (shots) out of it.
“There’s some tough pins out there. You miss them on the wrong spots, you’re going to pay a price, and I think that’s kind of what’s signified in the scoring. No one is running away with it. Nobody went low today.”
Defending champion Graeme McDowell, who also triumphed here in 2010, opened with a 72 while fellow Northern Irishman Rory McIlroy carded a 73, just four days after winning his first title of the year at the Australian Open.
“My (putting) speed was a little clumsy, and it showed today on the greens,” McDowell said after offsetting four birdies with four bogeys. “But generally I was quite happy the way I hit the ball.”
Reporting by Mark Lamport-Stokes; Editing by Frank Pingue