PONTE VEDRA BEACH, Fla. — Dustin Johnson is using a new technique for his putting and he likes the results.
Frustrated over not seeing enough putts go in over the last three months, Johnson tried the “AimPoint” method that some players use to help them read the greens. He opened with six birdies on the back nine, only once had a putt over 3 feet for par and wound up with a 6-under 66 to share the early lead at The Players Championship.
Alex Noren and Webb Simpson also were at 66 among the early starters Thursday.
Tiger Woods and Phil Mickelson, playing together for the first time in nearly four years, were out in the afternoon when the light wind was a little stronger. Johnson and the early birds couldn’t ask for better scoring conditions at the TPC Sawgrass.
Johnson, whose No. 1 ranking is in jeopardy this week, made the putts he had been missing in Mexico and Riviera, at Augusta National and Hilton Head.
So he had one of his coaches, Allen Terrell, teach the method to Austin Johnson, his brother and caddie. And then the world’s No. 1 player picked it up quickly, and they were on their way.
“I was just not making enough putts,” Johnson said. “It’s definitely helped. Because I’m a feel putter, anyway, and so the way you’re doing it really is you’re just feeling. So it definitely works. I was pretty good the first time I switched. I had done it a little bit, like messing around with it. I’m very pleased with the way I putted today.”
It involves a player holding up one or two fingers, depending on the length of the putt, to help determine.
“The only thing I don’t like is holding up fingers,” Johnson said. “I make AJ do that.”
The scoring was so easy that 43 of the 72 players who teed off in the morning broke par.
Defending champion Si Woo Kim had the lead until two late bogeys. He had to settle for a 67, still a strong start considering that no one has ever won back to back in the PGA Tour’s premier event.
Also at 67 was Keith Mitchell, who only got into the tournament Wednesday when Paul Casey had to withdraw with an injury. Mitchell played nine holes of practice on Tuesday and Wednesday, and made his debut with four straight birdies at the start. All that ruined his day was a double bogey at the par-3 third hole, his 12th of the day.
“I don’t want to say it was a surprise. I’ve been playing well lately,” Mitchell said. “I was surprised to be able to play, first of all, so that was more of the surprise, just to be able to tee it up. When we did, we just tried to take advantage of our opportunity.”
Among those who didn’t take advantage was the feature group of the morning — Rory McIlroy, Justin Thomas and Jordan Spieth. They were a combined 3 over, and McIlroy had the best score of the group with a 71.
“It could have been better. I could have been probably a little worse, as well. It was probably a fair reflection of how I played,” McIlroy said. “It looked like it played easy out there, but our group didn’t feel like that with what we shot.”
Spieth hit into the water three times in his opening seven holes, leading to a pair of bogeys and double bogey. He also drove the 12th green to 10 feet for eagle. But he shot a 75, and he’ll have to work hard Friday to avoid missing the cut for the fourth straight year at The Players.
Johnson doesn’t have a great track record on the Stadium Course. The 66 was his best round by two shots, and only the fourth time he broke 70. The timing couldn’t have been better, especially with his No. 1 ranking on the line.
He opened with simple birdies at the 11th and 12th (eagle chances at both), and made a 10-footer at No. 14 and a 20-footer on the par-5 16th. The bonus was on the 18th, when his 35-foot birdie putt had plenty of speed as it swirled into the cup.
He also made a 10-foot birdie at the par-5 second, and then didn’t have many reasonable chances the rest of the way. But it was free of stress, too. His only brush with bogey was a 6-foot par putt on the island-green 17th.
“I don’t think I putted very well around here as a whole,” Johnson said of his record at Sawgrass. “That’s one thing I’ve struggled around here with, and today I rolled it nicely.”