Dustin Johnson posts career-best round, tied for lead at Players

PONTE VEDRA BEACH, Fla. -- Dustin Johnson's spot atop the world rankings is in peril, and he has never had much success around the Stadium course at TPC Sawgrass, with just three of his 30 rounds in the 60s.

So, of course, on Thursday during the opening round of the Players Championship, Johnson looked at ease, shooting a bogey-free 6-under-par 66 for a six-way tie at the top of the leaderboard.

"I haven't had the best record here, but it's a golf course that I like," Johnson said. "I enjoy playing it, and I feel like I should play well here."

The logjam of Johnson, Webb Simpson, Alex Noren, Matt Kuchar, Chesson Hadley and Patrick Cantlay is the largest ever at the course and the most players tied at the top in the tournament in 40 years.

"If you're on your game, this course suits you,'' Kuchar said.

Johnson shot 68 during the final round each of the past two years -- his previous best score on the Stadium course -- when he was already well out of contention. His best result in nine previous appearances was a tie for 12th last year, and that is his only finish in the top 20. He has missed the cut once and withdrawn.

The 17-time PGA Tour winner has also seen his 15-month hold on the No. 1 ranking loosen considerably of late, even though his results have been good if not great.

Since winning the Sentry Tournament of Champions in early January, Johnson, 33, has four worldwide top-10 finishes, including a tie for 10th at the Masters.

But unless he finishes in at least a tie for 11th this week at the Players Championship, Johnson is poised to be overtaken by the likes of No. 2 Justin Thomas, No. 3 Jon Rahm, No. 4 Jordan Spieth or No. 5 Justin Rose. All have a chance to move to No. 1 based on various scenarios.

Johnson does not seem bothered.

"Every week Justin's pretty close. He's been pretty close to me for a while, so I know there's a chance that someone can pass me," Johnson said. "I definitely want to stay there, but if someone passes me, it's not going to change anything. I'm going to still go back next week and try to get it back.

"So obviously this week if I play really well I'll still be No. 1. If I don't, someone's going to pass me, which is OK."

Starting on the back nine, Johnson made birdies at the 11th, 12th, 14th, 16th and 18th holes. He got to 6 under when he birdied No. 2 then made pars the rest of the way.

Johnson first got to No. 1 when he won the Genesis Open in February 2017. He added victories at the WGC-Mexico Championship and the WGC-Dell Match Play Championship before slipping on stairs and injuring his back prior to the Masters. He won later in the year at The Northern Trust.

"I think he's done a great job because I feel it's harder to stay there than it is to get there," said Rory McIlroy, who is ranked eighth and was last ranked No. 1 following the U.S. Open in 2015. "Once you're there, you have a lot of points to defend [the ranking system works on a two-year sliding scale], and there's a lot that goes into it.

"I don't think pressure really gets to him, but maybe the expectation. A lot of guys have a chance to take it from him, and that's sort of where we are in golf right now."

Tiger Woods, Phil Mickelson, and Rickie Fowler -- playing in the same group -- all struggled in the first round. Woods had an even-par 72 that included a rinsed tee shot at the 18th hole and a 10-foot bogey-saving putt. Fowler had 74 and Mickelson played the last 5 holes in 7 over par to shoot 79.

The other marquee group of McIlroy, Thomas and Spieth didn't fair much better. McIrloy shot 71, with Thomas at 73 and Spieth -- who hit 3 balls in the water over his first eight holes -- shooting 75.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.