Dustin Johnson clears tricky first hurdle to set up Genesis Invitational title bid

In recent years world number one Dustin Johnson has struggled on Thursday at Riviera Country Club, but this year he carded a 68 that leaves him primed to chase a fifth win in nine starts.

At first glance it's very difficult to find much in Dustin Johnson's record at Rivera Country Club to be disappointed with.

In 13 starts at the Genesis Invitational he's landed ten finishes of T16th or better, six of them top fours and one of them, in 2017, was a victory.

It's a log book entirely in keeping with his stature as a world number one who is something of an expert on Californian courses with Poa Annua grass.

His victory four years ago was the culmination of a four-year stretch of excellence on the George Thomas/William Bell design.

He'd finished second in both 2014 and 2015, then fourth in 2016.

In the first and last of those years he ended the week a mere two shots back of the winner; in the middle event only extra holes denied him the win.

The victory, when it came, was decisive: he led by five shots after 54 holes and maintained that advantage through the final round.

A normal golfer would be pleased with what followed: he was T16th on defence in 2018, tied ninth in 2019 and T10th last year.

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It's a solid bank of work, but within those bare numbers is a reality that Johnson's last three starts in this tournament have seen him start very slowly.

In tripping up at the first hurdle, he has been handicapping his ability to turn a good week into a winning week.

But not this year.

An opening round of 3-under-par 68 left him T12th, four shots adrift of the early pace-setter Sam Burns, but just two blows behind Matthew Fitzpatrick and Max Homa who share second.

He's bang in the hunt for win number two at Riviera and a fifth victory in his last nine starts.

Let's take a closer look at those recent first round problems and his prospects for the rest of the week.

Leaving himself behind the 8-ball

Tripping up at the first hurdle? Getting stuck behind the 8-ball?

Mixed metaphors, maybe, but they explain Johnson's effort the last three Thursdays in Pacific Palisades.

In 2018 he opened with a 74 that left him T105th, with little hope of thereafter successfully defending the title.

He responded with laps of 69-64 only for the comeback effort, as is so common, to leave him with little to offer on Sunday: a 73 left him T16th.

Johnson on his way to victory at Riviera in 2017.
Johnson on his way to victory at Riviera in 2017.

In 2019 he started the week with a 73 which had him T117th - more or less a repeat of the year before except that he finished 66-69-69 for tied ninth.

Last year's round one effort was a 72, only good enough for T65th and, like 2018 he bounced back before going flat, carding 66-67-72 for T10th.

Back in the 2014-2017 run, when he never finished outside the top four, Johnson was in contention all week.

And, but for those tardy first rounds in 2018-2020, he'd have surely been so again.

His opening gambit this year

Early on in his round, Johnson might have been feeling a distinct sense of deja vu.

Starting on the back nine, he attacked the short par-4 10th hole, but failed to break par and a bogey at the 14th had him staring at another over-par start to the week.

He bounced back immediately, draining a nine-foot birdie putt at the 15th, but seven pars followed as he struggled to make headway.

In all, he found just 3-of-14 fairways and 11-of-18 greens in regulation, but he saved par every time he missed those putting surfaces.

The resilience was rewarded with a burst of three par breakers in four holes from the fifth which transformed his day and places him right at the heart of the chasing pack.

In his own words

"I'm pleased with the score," he said after the round before adding: "Not really that thrilled with how I hit the ball today, but I'm going to go to the range to hit a few."

If his ball-striking was in far from ideal shape, his game plan was working because, in addressing the poor accuracy of his driving, he said: "I never really got out of position off the tees. I missed it where I wanted to miss it (but) tomorrow I need to hit a few more fairways."

He was also aware that he needs to "take care of the par 5s" because in round one, in spite of them playing as three of the four easiest holes on the course, he needed five blows every time.

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He concluded that the playing conditions are superb and dictate that approach shots are key this week.

"The greens are perfect, the fairways are firm and fast, and this golf course plays really difficult when it's firm and fast.

"You have to be in the right position or you've got no chance if you're leaving yourself with downhill putts all day.

"They're really tough to make just because they're so fast. You've got to hit them so soft and play so much break on a lot of them that it's difficult."

What to expect on Friday

If Johnson has had his problems in round one in recent years, his second circuit has been plain sailing.

Four of his last five second rounds at Riviera have reaped a 66 and the exception was a solid 69.

Johnson is 4/1 to win the Genesis Invitational with SkyBet and 10/11 with the same company to win his second round three-ball against Bubba Watson and Adam Scott.