With rare exception, the early golfers left the birdies to the afternoon starters Thursday at the Crowne Plaza Invitational at Colonial.
At least, that was the case among the front-runners and the featured groups on a day marked by swirling winds and capped by a familiar face in a different place: Dustin Johnson, playing only his fourth career round in Fort Worth, leads after a bogey-free round of 65.
Johnson, at 5 under par, squeezed out a one-stroke lead over Harris English, Hunter Mahan, Robert Streb and Tim Wilkinson. Among the four front-runners, only Wilkinson began battling Colonial’s 20 mph wind gusts before noon — a unique twist at a venue where golfers with morning tee times often experience more pristine scoring conditions than afternoon starters.
That did not translate to Thursday’s scorecards, especially among the tournament’s featured groups. The afternoon headliners, led by Johnson and English (66), combined to shoot 18-under in back-to-back threesomes that also included Mahan (66), Jason Dufner (67), Jordan Spieth (67) and Boo Weekley (71), the defending champ.
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The morning featured groups, meanwhile, struggled home with a combined mark of 7 over despite having two of the world’s top four golfers in the mix.
But neither No. 1 Adam Scott (71) nor No. 4 Matt Kuchar (72) broke even-par 70 in conditions that Jim Furyk (69) described as almost ideal for birdie barrages.
“I’m actually surprised at the scores. The greens were quite soft, and we didn’t have a lot of wind this morning,” said Furyk, whose fellow morning headliners included Scott, Kuchar, Zach Johnson (70) and Rickie Fowler (80). The most successful morning headliner, former Baylor standout Jimmy Walker, posted a 67.
But the day belonged to the other late starters, even if scoring conditions were not in their favor. With his 65, Dustin Johnson bettered his previous-best Colonial round by four strokes.
“When it’s windy, you’ve got to get a good bead on it and how it’s going to affect the ball,” said Johnson, who found 16 of 18 greens in regulation. “I think I did a really good job of that. It was still blowing pretty good.”
But Johnson persevered, burying a 45-foot birdie putt at No. 5 to generate some early momentum and closing with a 12-foot par putt at No. 18 to preserve the solo lead. For much of the day, it appeared that lead would belong to Mahan, a Dallas resident who began his round with an eagle and posted a 29 on the front nine — one stroke off the course record, set in 1993 by Wayne Levi.
But Mahan faltered at the final hole, driving into the right rough. Stymied by a tree, he chipped back into the fairway, came up short with his approach and three-putted for double bogey to cap an otherwise stellar effort.
Mahan said he benefited from playing with Spieth and Dufner in a threesome where everyone remains within two strokes of the lead. He’s also happy his afternoon round is in the rearview mirror before Friday’s 36-hole cut.
“I’m surprised the afternoon rounds are better than the morning rounds. Usually that’s flipped, so it’s a little strange,” Mahan said. “I hit a lot of good shots and everything feels good. When everyone’s got a good rhythm in your group, it helps. There was just a great peace, great rhythm to the round.”
Spieth, a Dallas resident who is No. 9 in the world rankings, concurred after balancing six birdies with three bogeys. Spieth said he played “a lot better than last week,” when he tied for 37th at the HP Byron Nelson Championship.
“I think [a great score] was out there. It really wasn’t playing that difficult,” Spieth said. “But after [Friday], I’m sure you’ll see a 62 or 63. Hopefully, it’s me. This course was pretty gettable.”
Yet lots of notable names in the Colonial field will find themselves fighting to survive the 36-hole cut after Friday’s second round. Chief among headliners vulnerable to early exits are Scott (71) and Kuchar (72), the top-ranked players in the field.
Scott struggled to a 39 in his first nine holes before rebounding. Kuchar matched his highest score in 29 career rounds at Hogan’s Alley. But neither one struggled like Fowler, who battled flu-like symptoms while posting an 80 that included triple bogeys at No. 7 and No. 11.
“I didn’t feel 100 percent,” said Fowler, whose previous high score at Colonial had been a 73 in 2011. “I wanted to go out there and try to get something going.”
It did not happen Thursday, meaning Fowler will join TCU golfer Julien Brun (77), Fort Worth resident Franklin Corpening (74) and Southlake resident Y.E. Yang (76) among players scrambling to reach the weekend rounds.
Dustin Johnson, on the other hand, is sitting pretty.