PACIFIC PALISADES, California (Reuters) - Combine a fast start to the season with a favored venue and you have a near-perfect recipe for Dustin Johnson, who charged into a one-shot lead at the Northern Trust Open on Thursday.
The long-hitting American, who has relished playing at Riviera Country Club since his rookie PGA Tour campaign in 2008, took advantage of ideal scoring conditions to fire a five-under-par 66 in the opening round.
Johnson, who tied for second at last week’s Pebble Beach National Pro-Am, mixed six birdies with a lone bogey to finish one ahead of 10 others before play was suspended for the day due to darkness.
Of the 15 players yet to complete the opening round, American J.B. Holmes was just one stroke off the pace with two holes remaining.
Among those who had already signed for 67s were Americans Robert Garrigus, Charley Hoffman and Jimmy Walker, who has already won three times this season, Italy’s Francesco Molinari and Australian Matt Jones.
U.S. Open champion Justin Rose, playing his first event of the year after recovering from tendinitis in his right shoulder, shot a 70 while 2011 Masters champion Charl Schwartzel and former world number one Lee Westwood carded 69s.
Though four other players briefly reached five-under, only Johnson stayed there after reveling in a glorious morning of unbroken sunshine at Riviera where there was hardly a breath of wind.
The 29-year-old American birdied four of his first nine holes and picked up two more shots after the turn, along with a bogey at the tricky par-three fourth, to surge to the top of the leaderboard.
“I just got off to a good start and continued to play really solid all day,” said Johnson, who has recorded top-10s in his first three starts on the 2013-14 PGA Tour, including victory at the WGC-HSBC Champions in November.
“I kept it in play and hit a lot of greens, had a lot of looks at birdie. I’ve been playing pretty good all year, so the game’s right where I want it to be. Coming off a good week last week, I’m definitely feeling good coming in this week.
“Any score under par out here is a pretty solid round. It’s a tough course ... but it’s just a golf course that I really like. Right now it’s in perfect condition and I have zero complaints about the course.”
Johnson, an eight-times winner on the PGA Tour, has an impressive record at Riviera where he has posted three top-10s in six starts, including a tie for third in 2010 and a share of fourth in 2012.
“Ever since the first time I came here, I’ve just really liked this golf course,” he said. “It’s a great, great golf course, it’s always in good condition and it’s just a fun course to play.
“It’s tough but, you know, it’s fair. It’s in great shape right now, too. The weather couldn’t be any better.”
Like Johnson, red-hot Walker loves Riviera and he moved into early contention for his fourth victory of the new ‘wraparound’ season with a sizzling birdie-birdie-birdie finish.
“You just don’t birdie the last three holes here,” smiled Walker, who clinched his maiden PGA Tour title at the Frys.com Open in October before adding further wins at the Sony Open in January and last week’s Pebble Beach National Pro-Am.
“It’s tough to do. Just go with it. I hit good shots and you try not to think about the next hole. I hit a really good shot into 16 to a foot and then two good shots into 17 and made a nice putt.”
Though Walker found the intermediate rough to the right off the tee at the uphill par-four 18th, he struck an eight-iron from there to 30 feet and sank the birdie putt.
“I hit a great shot to the back of the green and made that long putt, so it was nice,” Walker said. “You’re not always going to make that putt on 18.”
Reporting by Mark Lamport-Stokes; Editing by Larry Fine/Ian Ransom