Dustin Johnson: Worth taking him on again in the second round?

It was not the start Johnson would have hoped for in the Valspar Championship at the Innisbrook Resort – he could do nothing more than sign for a level-par 71.

World No. 1 Dustin Johnson appeared in a chipper mood ahead of the first round at this week's Valspar Championship at the Innisbrook Resort.

"I feel like it's really close," he said of his form. "I just haven't put it all together, especially for a week. But I'm trending in the right direction."

After three failures to make the top 40 in a strokeplay event (plus early departure from the WGC Dell Match Play), his T13th at The Heritage gave him hope that the brilliant form he had shown in late 2020 and early 2021 was just around the corner.

Yet, despite making birdie at the first in his Thursday lap of the Copperhead Course, Johnson found himself in yet another scrap.

By day's close he'd carded a level-par 71 that left him seven shots behind the early pace setter Keegan Bradley and, at T66th on the leaderboard, facing a Friday fight to make the cut rather than contend for the lead.

Let's take a closer look at his round and then ponder the wisdom of taking him on again in round two.

The tale of the round

The start could not be faulted: two long blows to the opening par-5 green and a two-putt birdie from 16-feet. Game on?

Having set up another birdie look from just seven-feet on two, the chance went begging, but he saved par at the third from the same range.

He missed the green at the par-3 fourth and couldn't save par, but the response was strong: draining par breakers from five-feet at the fifth and sixth.

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Ahead of the tournament Johnson had praised the course, explaining: "It's tough to make pars. I like that. You don't have to make a lot of birdies. You don't have to shoot way under par. Shoot a couple under each day and you're going to have a chance to win come Sunday."

At 2-under hitting the turn (he made regulation pars at 7 and 8), he was on track.

But then he ground to a shuddering halt.

The ninth was messy: rough from the tee, greenside bunker, failure to find the green, bogey-5.

He flirted with more trouble in the next two holes and then failed to scramble par at the 176-yard 13th.

In all, on the back nine, he found one of six fairways and one of three greens on the short holes.

All told he might even have been pleased to scratch 71 in the scorer's hut because it could have been worse.

The numbers

Johnson led the field in Strokes Gained Off the Tee at Harbour Town, a return to his levels ahead of the form dip.

But in round one he gained only +0.660 to rank 41st.

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The poor numbers and rankings were a consistent pattern throughout.

Having been relentless ranked top 25 (usually considerably higher) for SG Approach, he's now gone two events outside the top 50 and is on track to make it three (currently 55th).

His Greens in Regulation numbers were poor too. He's gone from being reliably inside the top 10 every week to struggling to break the 40 and hitting half of them, as he did on Thursday, left him ranked T109th.

His putting improved at Harbour Town with a first top 10 for SG Putting since last August, but he lost 0.193 strokes in round one and ranks 89th.

In fact, he doesn't sit top 40 for even one category, modern or traditional, after Thursday.

The second round

In one sense, Johnson's opening score was not so bad: it was actually his fourth best total for 18 holes in nine circuits of the Copperhead Course.

But those stats are wince-inducing. There's nothing to provide hope.

Except, perhaps, that it can't get any worse?!

His experience of Friday's at Innisbrook are not great, however.

Johnson has a task to turn his game around on Friday
Johnson has a task to turn his game around on Friday

He shot 75 and 73 in his first two visits to miss the cut, and 69 two years ago when eventually sixth.

Justin Thomas, his playing partner, carded 69 in round one, was happy with his performance, and also has mixed memories of this course on the second lap (72-67-74).

Joaquin Niemann, the third member of the group, claimed the early honours with a 68 and will hope to improve on his only previous Friday effort here of 73.

Paddy Power price Johnson 11/10 to end the week in the top 20 and that would take a bold punter.

In the second round three-ball Thomas has assumed favouritism at 11/8, with Johnson 17/10 and Niemann 12/5.

Thomas reported he was going to address his putting stroke before dark and the stats explain why: he ranked third for SG Tee to Green (essentially getting the ball onto the putting surface), but 146th for Putting (getting the ball in the hole).

Maybe Niemann time again?

READ MORE: Paul Casey talks Tokyo Olympics after opening Valspar three-peat bid with 68

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