PACIFIC PALISADES, Calif. — At the end of the first day of the Northern Trust Open, it’s a familiar name that stands at the top of the leaderboard alone.
Dustin Johnson is in prime position to continue his hot start to the season as he leads the pack at Riviera Country Club with a 5-under 66 in the first round. It almost seems as if there isn’t a shot he can’t make as this season has looked easy for the 29-year-old.
He opened the wraparound season with a win at the HSBC Champions event in Shanghai, tied for sixth at the Hyundai Tournament of Champions and finished second last week at Pebble Beach.
"I’ve been playing pretty good all year so the game is right where I want it to be," Johnson said. "Coming off a good week last week, got a lot of confidence coming into this week. Today I just got off to a good start and just continued to play really solid all day."
A tight course with the greens playing faster than the Clippers, Johnson hit 16 of 18 greens for his best career greens in regulation performance at Riviera in 21 rounds. Even when it seemed like Paulina Gretzky’s fiance was in trouble, he found a way to get out of it. He made two sand saves, one for birdie, and sunk birdie putts on 17 and 18 to take a one-shot lead.
"It seems like the harder the shot is, the better I hit it," Johnson said. "I’m always fairly good out of the bunker."
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There isn’t much cushion between him and the rest of the pack at the moment as the tournament features a crowded leaderboard after the first round of play.
Last week’s winner, Jimmy Walker, is right on his trail only a shot behind. It was an eventful back nine for Walker, who birdied 10, arguably the most mentally and physically challenging holes of the course – he bogeyed 12 and 13 before finishing with three-straight birdies for a 67.
Walker had one of the biggest crowds all day and after three PGA Tour wins this season that seemingly came out of nowhere, it looks as though the Fed Ex Cup points leader is finally becoming a true star on the PGA Tour.
"It’s different, it just is," Walker said. "I’m still processing it all. I’ve never done this right here, stood in the room like this. It’s always kind of been sitting down in the media room and stuff. But I don’t know, this is where you want to be and this is why you want to play and play good."
Defending champion John Merrick was good but not great Thursday, finishing one-over after some shaky putting.
"You have to be very precise out there. If you’re off just a little bit, you’re not going to make a putt," Merrick said. "Very tough set of greens out here."
The former Bruin was paired with former Trojan Kevin Stadler, who made a poor wardrobe decision Thursday.
"I was surprised Stadler had the blue shirt on today," Merrick said.
Mission Viejo’s Cameron Tringale enjoyed one of the best rounds of the day. It was a back-and-forth round with a an exceptionally low first nine but former Mission Viejo High standout’s eagle on 17 helped set the tone as he made the turn, finishing 3-under tied for 13th.
As many of the best shots often are, his eagle was a poor decision turned right.
"I hit driver and it was down-wind so figured if I really nuked it I could get it to the front. But I played it up the left, couldn’t reach. It was an experiment. I hit it in the rough about 110 yards," Tringale said. "I used about a 3/4 gap wedge, landed about three yards short, one-hopped up, landed by the hole and spun back in."
The Tour’s fastest-rising star in 20-year-old phenom Jordan Spieth looked to be making a run for the lead after his front nine, finishing 3-under. But as the course began to bake in the afternoon sun and its teeth came out, Spieth got caught in those teeth multiple times. He bogeyed 11 then lost his ball in the rough on 12. He bogeyed 13 and then after four blissfully uneventful holes, he hit his tee shot into the trees on 18.