(Reuters) – Dustin Johnson has come close to victory several times on the PGA Tour this season without winning and the long-hitting American was once again back in contention at the FedEx St. Jude Classic in Memphis on Thursday.
A nine-times winner on the U.S. circuit, Johnson fired a four-under-par 66 at the TPC Southwind to stand just one stroke off the lead held by compatriots Tom Hoge and Shawn Stefani, and South Korea’s Noh Seung-yul.
Fan favorite Phil Mickelson, a five-times major winner who next week will head to Oakmont searching for a first U.S. Open win after a record six runner-up finishes, returned a 70.
Johnson, who won here in 2012, was relatively happy with an opening round that included seven birdies, an eagle at the par-five 16th, three bogeys and a double at the par-three 14th.
“I felt like I played a lot better than my score,” the 31-year-old said after finishing level with fellow Americans Brian Gay, Colt Knost and PGA Tour veteran Steve Stricker, Welshman Jamie Donaldson and Argentina’s Miguel Angel Carballo.
“Just kind of gave away a few shots on the back side, which was my front nine, and then obviously finishing with two (bogeys after the turn)… just gave away a couple of shots.”
Johnson, whose most recent PGA Tour victory came at last year’s WGC-Cadillac Championship in Miami, has recorded seven top-10s this season in 12 starts, including two third placings.
“Feel like I have been playing really well all year,” he told reporters. “The game is good, it’s really good right now … just got to give myself an opportunity to get it done on Sundays.
“The only thing that has really held me back from winning a bunch of times this year is just making a few more putts.”
Noh, who claimed his first PGA Tour title at the 2014 Zurich Classic of New Orleans, surged into a three-way tie at the top after picking up two shots in his last three holes.
“Pretty solid today, and then just one bogey,” he said after a round highlighted by six birdies, and a superb approach from 140 yards at the par-four last that settled within a foot of the cup.
“Hitting into the rough and missing the fairway here, it’s really tough to play this course … but I make a lot of birdies, a lot of pars, so a really solid round today.”
(Reporting by Mark Lamport-Stokes in Los Angeles; Editing by Larry Fine)