July 17th, 2024

Zach Johnson makes 10 birdies, shares 1st-round lead with Alex Noren at The American Express

By Greg Beacham, The Associated Press on January 18, 2024.

LA QUINTA, Calif. (AP) – Zach Johnson embraced the pressure of being the U.S. Ryder Cup captain last year, even if the experience didn’t go the way anybody on his team hoped.

A few months later, Johnson is past all the pressure and the second-guessing – and those newly lightened shoulders might have been a factor in his sizzling round to start The American Express.

Johnson made seven of his 10 birdies on the front nine on the way to a 10-under 62 and a share of the lead with Sweden’s Alex Noren after the first round in the Coachella Valley on Thursday.

Johnson’s 29 on the front nine was the lowest nine-hole score in his 493 career PGA Tour starts, and he needed only 10 putts to do it. He credited his strong start partly to an off-season of focused preparation after his release from the demands of the Ryder Cup captaincy.

“Put a lot of good work in as of late,” Johnson said. “Actually been a lot of normal golf work, given what happened last year, with what I was responsible for, which was awesome. Now it’s time to get back to work. I’ve enjoyed the work. I’ve enjoyed the sweat.”

Postcard-perfect desert conditions and the straightforward nature of this tournament’s three courses unsurprisingly led to low scores from some of the world’s top players. Several members of Johnson’s unsuccessful Ryder Cup team are in The American Express field, but the 2007 Masters champ outdid them all to start.

Rico Hoey and Christiaan Bezuidenhout are one shot back of the leaders, and 22 golfers shot 65 or better, including Patrick Cantlay, Xander Schauffele, Justin Thomas, Australia’s Min Woo Lee and former champion Si Woo Kim.

Adam Hadwin of Abbotsford, B.C., led the Canadian contingent with a 7-under 65. Ben Silverman of Thornhill, Ont., and Nick Taylor of Abbotsford shot 68, while Taylor Pendrith of Richmond Hill, Ont., had a 71.

Rogers Sloan of Merritt, B.C., shot a 4-over 76.

Johnson made six consecutive birdies to close out his front nine at La Quinta Country Club. He added three more birdies down the stretch, getting the 47-year-old off to a bogey-free start in his quest for his first PGA Tour victory since the 2015 British Open.

“La Quinta Country Club is legitimately one of the purest places we play on the PGA Tour year-in, year-out,” Johnson said. “The grass is – it almost looks fake. If you have it going, and you have some sort of rhythm, and you’re seeing the lines on the putting green, because they’re pure, you can put a number up. Love this place. … I told the assistant pro today if I broke 76 that I should get a free membership, but I don’t think that’s going to (happen). That’s unfortunate, but we’ll keep working on ’em.”

Noren’s round started with five birdies and an eagle on the first seven holes, followed by a double bogey. He finished with five more birdies on his last six holes. The 41-year-old 10-time European Tour winner is still seeking his first PGA Tour title.

“I don’t think I’ve been 7 under after seven (holes), and then I hit it out of bounds on my eighth hole,” Noren said. “Just fun to be here. I like this tournament. This course is beautiful.”

Hoey – the Philippines-born, Rancho-Cucamonga-raised product of USC – excelled in his fourth PGA Tour start.

The 28-year-old former star of the Southern California junior golf scene carded birdies on four consecutive holes in his back nine on the Nicklaus course. Hoey is among the 30 American Express participants who earned their PGA Tour cards from last year’s Korn Ferry Tour.

“It was kind of cool having everyone out here – my family, my dad, girlfriend, coaches, everyone,” said Hoey, who played frequently in the Palm Springs area as a junior. “Feels like a home event for me, I only live an hour away.”

Thomas also got off to a strong start in his season debut, shooting a 65 featuring eight birdies. The two-time PGA Championship winner and former world No. 1 hasn’t won a tournament since that second PGA title in 2022.

World No. 1 Scottie Scheffler didn’t scorch La Quinta as thoroughly as some of his competitors, carding a 67 with three of his five birdies clustered around the turn. Rickie Fowler and Wyndham Clark each shot 70.

The competitors play one round on each of the event’s three courses before the 54-hole cut Saturday. Two amateurs play alongside most of the pro pairings, although the former Bob Hope Desert Classic dropped its longtime pro-am format in 2012.

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AP golf: https://apnews.com/golf

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