Johnson leads 'tough' day at World Challenge

Zach Johnson, right, alongside Jason Day during the first round of the 2013 Northwestern Mutual World Challenge.

THOUSAND OAKS, Calif. – So after a back-nine jaunt that featured more hills than a Rocky Mountain ski resort, what awaited the boys upon their arrival at Sherwood Country Club’s 18th hole Thursday was another uphill climb.

Fortunately, what rested atop that final walk was a putting green and oh, how that proved to be a sanctuary for wounded and battered spirits. This Northwestern Mutual World Challenge a hit ’n giggle affair? Well, if it is, then consider Round 1 to have been filled with many hits (the field average for the 18 in attendance was 72.78 and there were 64 bogeys) and barely any giggles.

“This is a tough golf course (and it) hasn’t been this tough in a couple years,” said Graeme McDowell, a former winner of this Tiger Woods Invitational who was first off and fairly content with his level-par 72. Little did McDowell realize that he would grow even more satisfied when the rest of the field came in behind him. That’s because only five players scored better on a day when cold weather and firm greens put up a sturdy defense.

Even the guy who led the way with a 5-under 67 expressed plenty of anxieties. “First of all, there were some tough pins,” said Zach Johnson. “Second, it’s that time of year when some of the guys are trying to shake the rust off.”

Not to argue with a guy who had just offset two bogeys with seven birdies, but even those who certainly didn’t arrive with any rust struggled. Dustin Johnson, the guy who was so impressive in a WGC-HSBC win a few weeks ago? He bogeyed three of his first five holes and shot 74. And Jason Day, he of the World Cup of Golf win two weeks ago? He made six bogeys and shot 76.

Truth is, after Johnson’s 67, only Matt Kuchar (68), Hunter Mahan (70), Bubba Watson (70) and the tournament host (Woods, 71) broke par, and the day proved to be a survival test that most of the field failed. Jordan Spieth, for instance, played the five par 3s in a whopping 5-over and shot the day’s highest score, 77. But as rough as that was, the 20-year-old didn’t have to go far to find someone who could commiserate - playing competitor Steve Stricker finished bogey, bogey, double-bogey and shot 75.

“It wasn’t easy,” Johnson said, and Bill Haas, who shot 73, agreed.

But if there was a silver lining to the day, well, Haas couldn’t find it. He smiled and shook his head, then noted that the weather was predicted to get even colder, then wetter, and windier.

Hey, the fairways may be lined with mega bucks here in the big leagues, but no one ever said it was going to be easy, so there were no complaints. Just a lot of long faces headed up that final head and onto the putting green to work out some kinks and let off some steam. The 2013 season may be over and the world-class competition this week may be good friends up and down the lineup, but the fact is, for almost half the field there is one last chance to chalk up a 2013 victory.

Snicker if you like, but these boys take winning very seriously. So for seven of them – Mahan, Stricker, Watson, Jim Furyk, Keegan Bradley, Lee Westwood, and Ian Poulter – this is their last chance to do just that before the calendar flips.

In that quest, Mahan and Watson started nicely, Stricker did not, while Furyk (72) didn’t hurt himself. But Poulter managed to bogey three par 5s in a round of 76, Westwood made a pair of double-bogeys to shoot 74, and Bradley doubled the par-3 17th to come home in 75.

No giggles for them.

Actually, the search to find any signs of pleasure was a difficult one, save for Johnson’s stretch from 10-17 when he birdied five times. Maybe the best chuckle came from Rory McIlroy, who had fought back from three bogeys on the outward nine to sit at level par when his tee ball at the downhill, par-3 15th ballooned a little right.

“Oh, no,” McIlroy said, though he watched helplessly as the ball vanished into a watery hazard. Perhaps because it was only the opening round or perhaps because a week ago the kid from Northern Ireland overtook Adam Scott at the Australian Open to at least give his season a victory, but McIlroy didn’t hang his head or mutter an obscenity.

He giggled.

But it was lost in a long day of hits.

Welcome to Golfweek.com's comments section.
Please review the posting guidlines here: Golfweek.com Community Guidelines.
All accounts must be verified using Disqus email verification