Before he, or anyone else, took a single shot during competition at Glen Oaks Club, Dustin Johnson had said he is “a big fan” of the course. Those were his words on Wednesday. As he finished the 18th hole Thursday, he had no reason to change his mind.
Johnson, the somewhat overlooked No. 1 player in the world, made birdie on that final hole and ended the first round of the first PGA Tour event ever at Glen Oaks with a 65, 5-under par and one shot out of Russell Henley’s lead. “The golf course is in fantastic condition. It suits my eye well,” he said. “If I keep hitting it like I’m hitting it, I’m going to like it a lot more come Sunday, that’s for sure.”
The untested course held up its part of the bargain in the opening round of the Northern Trust, rewarding good rounds with good scores but nothing crazy like a 59. It played long and made the world’s best golfers respect every putt. As Henley said after his 64, “I don’t think anybody knows this course that well, just because it’s not a regular stop. So, I just tried to play somewhat conservative and make sure I was hitting to the fat part of the green. The greens are perfect and I got to roll in a few.”
Scott Brown, who played early in the morning and shot 66, said, “You’ve got to be sneaky aggressive, but then if you are, you could pay the penalty.”
Brown missed the cut at this tournament last year, when it was called the Barclays and played at Bethpage Black, and took the advice of Tam O’Shanter head pro Mark Brown (unrelated, but the Met Open champion on Glen Oaks last August) to check out the venue.
“When I came, the rough was a little lower and I don’t think they were quite sure they were going to play No. 1 as a par 4 or 5 yet, so I played it as a par 5,” Scott Brown said. It is a par 4 this week and Patrick Cantlay was the only one of the top 20 to birdie it.
PGA champion Justin Thomas rallied to finish at 2 under, playing among the top three in the FedEx Cup points list, along with Jordan Spieth (1 under) and Hideki Matsuyama (4 over). Spieth praised Glen Oaks’ “really cool look,” adding, “Not a blade of grass is out of place.”
Others spoke of the course’s length and its thick rough. That was a perfect fit for Johnson, a renowned long driver who also was accurate in his six-birdie, one-bogey round.
“Today was the first time I felt I was in control, like I was leading into the Masters,” the 2016 U.S. Open champion said. “I’ve been saying it’s close, I’ve seen signs of it. But today was the first time I was really in control of the swing. I hit a lot of really good shots, drove it well, did everything real well. It was the first time in a long time I’ve done that.”
He acknowledged that he has not been the same since the off-the-course injury in Augusta. A new putter and a week in the Bahamas with fiancee Paulina Gretzky and their children helped him Thursday, he said. There was no sign of Paulina’s famous father, Wayne, the hockey icon, but former Islander Butch Goring was in the gallery in the early evening to see Johnson make a crowd-pleasing birdie putt on the last hole.
“I was playing solid, I hit a good shot in there but I didn’t have the easiest putt, even though it was only four feet. Straight down the hill, sliding a little right,” he said, hopeful that he can be even happier on that green Sunday.