PONTE VEDRA BEACH, Fla. – One way or another, Michael Johnson was going to play golf on Friday.
On Tuesday, Johnson figured he would be heading to The Greenbrier in White Sulphur Springs, W.Va., for this weekend’s AJGA Woodward Video Junior. Instead, Matthew Ceravolo withdrew from the Junior Players Championship at TPC Sawgrass, opening up a spot for Johnson, who now leads the event after the first round.
“I was playing golf and getting ready to head to West Virginia and my mom called me and said ‘We might have to change our plane tickets,’ ” said Johnson, who opened with a 4-under 68 on a pristine day at the Stadium Course.
Starting on the back nine, Johnson parred his first two holes before embarking on a wild ride to finish the side. He made four birdies, two bogeys and capped things off with a double bogey at the 18th.
“That’s (No. 18) without a doubt the hardest hole on the course,” Johnson said. “The fairway is as wide as a cart path and if you miss left, you’re in the water, and if you miss right, you’re in the trees. But my caddie told me before we started that if I could get through the first nine at even par, I’d be in good shape, so I felt pretty good.”
Johnson birdied his next three holes and finished the day with another birdie at the par-5 ninth to shoot an inward nine of 4-under 32.
Johnson, of Birmingham, Ala., is playing in his first AJGA invitational.
“I’m just trying to play with the same mentality as I always do,” said Johnson, a 2011 Auburn commit. “I know you can’t win the tournament on the first day, so that’s all I’m trying to think about.”
Trailing Johnson by one shot is Thomas Stewart (69), from nearby St. Augustine, Fla. Stewart, who also started on the back nine, bogeyed No. 1, but played flawlessly on the other 17 holes, making four birdies, including one on the famous 17th.
Billy Kennerly and Wyndham Clark each shot 70, while Shun Yat Hak and J.D. Tomlinson (71) were the only other players under par.
Jordan Spieth, No. 4 in the Golfweek Junior Rankings, finished at 1-over 73 after missing a number of opportunities on the greens. He sits in a tie for 10th.
“It’s the same thing I’ve been struggling with all summer – a lack of confidence with my putter,” Spieth said. “I’m just not trusting it. I thought I got over it, but it came back a little today.
“It’s nothing a few extra putts on the practice green won’t fix.”
Spieth, the 2009 U.S. Junior Amateur champion, is playing in his first Junior Players Championship, and making his first trip to TPC Sawgrass. He missed the event in 2008 due to illness, and he didn’t compete last year because it conflicted with his first week of high school.
“The course is in absolutely perfect shape,” Spieth said. “I love that they are playing us in the same conditions, same length and same pin placements as the real Players Championship. It’s really good experience to be able to play a PGA Tour-caliber course in the same way it’s actually played on the PGA Tour.”
Gavin Hall, who made headlines at the U.S. Junior with a record-breaking round of 62, finished at 3-over 75 (T-19), which was not the score he was hoping for when he left the 18th green. Hall’s group, which also featured David Lee and Oklahoma State commit Tanner Kesterson, was given a one-stroke penalty for slow play when they went in to sign their cards.
“On hole 13 we waited, but on holes 14, 15, 16 and 18 we had balls in the trees,” said Kesterson, who also shot 75. “Whoever was in the trees obviously took a little longer. I’ve played in much slower groups, but they stroked us for it today.”
Hall suffered another extra stroke at No. 16, where he banged his club on a tree on his downswing, throwing his swing off plane and causing him to miss the ball and slam his right hand into the trunk of the tree.
After punching out to the fairway and two-putting for bogey at the 16th, Hall closed with a birdie at the 17th and another at the difficult finishing hole – one of only three birdies surrendered by No. 18 on the day.
“It’s a shame the penalty happened, but that’s the way it goes,” said Hall, who was celebrating his 16th birthday. “At least we still have two more rounds.”
Hall’s success at TPC’s home hole was a rarity for Friday’s round. The 462-yard par 4 played as the most difficult hole in Round 1 (4.86 scoring average). Just ask Jim Liu.
Liu, who earlier this year supplanted Tiger Woods as the youngest winner of the U.S. Junior, entered the closing hole at level par. He knocked his final tee shot into the water and took a drop near the forward tees. Liu striped a long iron into the fairway and put his next shot on the green, where he went on to three-putt for triple and a round of 75.
When asked his goal for Round 2, Liu laughed and said simply: “Try not to make triple bogey again. If I can do that, I think I’ll be fine.”