Neither Zach Johnson nor Chris Kirk have won on the PGA Tour since 2015, but they’ve each had their fair share of close calls, including last fall at the RSM Classic, Johnson having finished T-8 and Kirk T-4. The duo began their 2018 seasons on Thursday on a mission to contend once again this week, carding seven-under 63s to share a one-stroke lead at the Sony Open in Hawaii.
Johnson, 42, started his day with three straight birdies, including one from 26 feet on the par-4 third at Waialae Country Club. His next wouldn’t come until the par-5 ninth, where he two-putted from 33 feet to turn in four under 31. The 2015 Open champion added three more birdies on the back nine to finish off a bogey-free round, his 94th of that kind since 2004. There’s no question Johnson feels very comfortable at Waialae, where he won in 2009 and posted his lowest round on Thursday since the second round of last year’s Sony Open, when he carded a nine-under 61.
“I had a stretch there, whatever it was, 10, 12 years ago, where I felt really, really good every time I set foot on (Waialae), and then I had a lull,” Johnson said. “I just feel like it just fits me. I don’t have to change my game or manipulate my thought process on attacking this place.
“I just feel good, you know, when I set up. And any sort of confidence at a place can certainly breed momentum. So hopefully I’ll continue it. It’s just one day, but I like where I’m at.”
If there were any lingering mental effects from his alma mater’s crushing national championship game loss on Monday, they didn’t show during Kirk’s bogey-free 63. The Georgia alum went out in two-under 33, and then caught fire on his way in, collecting five birdies on the home nine, including three on his last four holes. Like Johnson, Waialae seems to be a good fit for Kirk. In seven appearances he’s made five cuts, including a T-5 finish in 2013 and a solo second in 2014.
Four players are one off the lead at six under, including another Georgia Bulldog, Brian Harman, who looks to continue his impressive start to 2017-’18 in which he’s finished eighth or better in all four events he’s played in. Harman is joined at six under by Vaughn Taylor, Kyle Stanley and PGA Tour rookie Talor Gooch.
With the help of Jim “Bones” Mackay on the bag, Justin Thomas began his title defense with a three under 67, putting him in a group of 21 players that sit four off the lead. If it weren’t for a quadruple-bogey-eight on his 17th hole, Jordan Spieth might also be in that group at three under, or even higher on the leader board. The three-time major champion was still able to post a one-under 69 though, putting him six shots back.
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