OLD WESTBURY, N.Y. – As first dates go, Thursday’s between the PGA Tour and Glen Oaks Club wasn’t too bad.
It may not have been love at first sight for Russell Henley, who entered the first round of the FedEx Cup ranked No. 19 on the points list, but his 6-under 64 gave him a one-shot lead over Dustin Johnson, who birdied 16 and 18 to shoot 65. Scott Brown, Chris Kirk and Camilo Villegas shot 66.
“I don’t think anybody knows this course that well just because it’s not a regular stop,” said Henley, who earlier this season won the Shell Houston Open. “I just tried to play somewhat conservative and just make sure I was hitting to the fat part of the green and give myself some birdie putts. The greens are perfect, and I got to roll in a few.”
Johnson also seemed smitten with this new venue and how it sets up his power game. The 2016 U.S. Open champ had a driving distance average of 323 yards on Thursday, hit 12 of 14 fairways and 16 of 18 greens in regulation.
“If I keep hittin’ it like I am I’m going to like it a lot,” he said. “You’ve got to drive it in the fairway out there because the rough is really brutal.”
Jordan Spieth, who shot 69, also liked the layout and said, “It’s cool with all the run-off areas. It’s unusual having a course with thick rough, having fairways that flow into other fairways. It’s just a really cool look.”
Louis Oosthuizen and Bubba Watson are among six players who shot 67 Thursday, but when it comes to the tournament-within-a-tournament and advancing to the next round of the FedEx Cup Playoffs, Watson is pragmatic.
“My thing is just play until they tell me I can’t play anymore,” he said. “You know, truthfully, when I’m done with the Playoffs, no matter where that is, I’m taking at least four and a half months off. I won’t play until next year.”
But one of the most compelling storylines this week is the battle many players are waging to keep their season going as long as possible. The top 125 players on the FedEx Cup points list qualified to be here, but on Sunday evening, after the Northern Trust has concluded, only the top 100 on the list qualify to play in next week’s Dell Technologies Championship at TPC Boston.
Villegas did a lot to help his cause because he came to the Glen Oaks Club ranked No. 98, so unless he implodes Friday, he should make the cut, get off the bubble and live to play another week. Chris Kirk entered the week at No. 97, but his 66 projects him to move up to No. 33. Again, even if he does not stay near the top of the leaderboard, his fast start should help him make the cut and stay within the top 100.
Conversely, some players hurt their chances to advance and will need to play well (and maybe get some help) to keep their 2016-17 PGA Tour seasons alive.
Jimmy Walker, the 2016 PGA Championship winner, came into the Northern Trust ranked No. 101 on the FedEx Cup points list and shot an even-par 70, which slipped him to a projected No. 104. Branden Grace dropped from No. 90 to a projected No. 101 after shooting 75, and Seung-Yul Noh was at No. 100 and shot 74, moving to a projected No. 111.