Zach Johnson got hot on a chilly Southern California day on Thursday to seize a one-stroke lead in the World Challenge, with tournament host Tiger Woods four adrift.
Johnson, a two-time runner-up in this event, had seven birdies in his five-under-par 67. He was one shot in front of Matt Kuchar, whose four-under 68 was highlighted by an eagle at the par-five 11th.
Hunter Mahan and Bubba Watson shared third on 70, followed by Woods on one-under 71 — the only players in the elite 18-man field for the unofficial event under par.
“There’s some tough pins out there,” Woods said. “You miss them on the wrong spots, you’re going to pay the price, and I think that’s kind of what’s signified in the scoring. No one is running away with it. Nobody went low today.”
After morning frost pushed back tee times one hour, Woods opened with a bogey.
He birdied the fifth and 11th — both par-fives — but he missed a golden opportunity at 18 when he missed a four-foot birdie putt.
“I made a few mistakes,” said Woods, who had not played since a tie for third at the Turkish Airlines Open early last month.
“Obviously the very first hole I missed a little short one and I missed a short one at 18,” Woods said. “But I had a couple good ones on the back nine today end up in some very interesting spots. The golf course is kind of set up that way now.”
Johnson said his only really poor drive cost him his second bogey of the day at the par-four 18th.
“I did everything decent,” he said. “I wedged it really good. Any time I had a wedge in my hand, I seemed to be hitting my lines and my yardages. I putted it great. Just a real solid day all around.”
Defending champion Graeme McDowell of Northern Ireland, going for a third title in an event he also won in 2010, settled for an even-par 72 that included four birdies and four bogeys.
McDowell played alongside compatriot Rory McIlroy, who notched his first victory of this year with a stirring triumph over home favorite Adam Scott at the Australian Open last Sunday, but did not see any momentum carry through in the first round at Sherwood Country Club.
McIlroy had three birdies, but four bogeys in his one-over-par 73.
McDowell said Sherwood is playing as tough as it has in years as it hosts the tournament for the 14th and final time.
“The course hasn’t been this tough in a couple years,” McDowell said. “The greens are much firmer. The speed of them caught me by surprise a little bit today. My speed was a little clumsy and it showed today on the greens.”
NEDBANK GOLF CHALLENGE
AP, SUN CITY, South Africa
Luke Donald’s rapid start at the Nedbank Golf Challenge was halted by lightning on Thursday, leaving the former top-ranked Englishman ahead by two shots on five-under through 11 holes of an incomplete opening round.
No one was able to play more than 12 holes on the first day at Sun City because of lightning and a thunderstorm.
Donald began the 30-man invitational with a birdie and an eagle, and was five-under when the day’s second interruption for lightning forced players off for good. He was two ahead of Jamie Donaldson and Thomas Bjorn.
“I feel good over the ball right now and I am playing with confidence,” Donald said, coming off a win in Japan two weeks ago.
Wales’ Donaldson played 12 holes, while Denmark’s Bjorn was three-under with three birdies in his six holes. Brendon de Jonge was due to join those two on three-under and two off the lead, after spinning a wedge back into the hole from 110m for an eagle three on No. 9 right as the weather hooter sounded. His score was not yet officially registered as his playing partners had not completed the hole.
Playing for the first time since ending last season with the FedEx Cup and European money list title, Henrik Stenson was one-under after seven and tied for fifth, with six straight pars after a birdie on No 1.
Boosted by his victory at the Phoenix Open, Donald’s quick start at Sun City came off sweetly struck iron shots into the greens at his opening two holes. He also picked up back-to-back birdies at the end of his opening nine.
“Lovely start,” he said. “It doesn’t get much better than three-three around here. Birdie, eagle and all of a sudden you are three under par through two holes. I played solid for those first 11 holes and hit a couple of very nice shots in that time that I was able to take advantage of.”
Defending champion Martin Kaymer is in the mix at two-under, while Charl Schwartzel led the South African challenge as one of seven players tied at one under par. Sergio Garcia is also part of that group, as is Peter Uihlein of the US.
Ernie Els was three-over after seven in search of his fourth title at Sun City, while US Open champion Justin Rose was four-over after eight. Only Australia’s Peter Senior, with three double bogeys in his first six holes to crash to eight-over through 10, was worse than Rose.
Having initially been kept off the course for nearly three hours through an earlier thunderstorm, the players came off for the second time in the late afternoon and all had to come back at 7:30am yesterday morning to complete their opening rounds.