HILTON HEAD ISLAND, S.C. (AP) — Masters champion Zach Johnson says he came to the Verizon Heritage to win. Johnson’s tired play Thursday showed otherwise.
After three days of celebrity meetings and TV guest appearances, the weary Johnson shot an up-and-down 70 at Harbour Town Golf Links. He was seven shots behind Jerry Kelly, the first-round leader at 8-under 63. Ernie Els was second at 65.
Still, Johnson’s smile rarely left during his morning round, even as made two bogeys and a four-putt double bogey. Crowds applauded his every move, Johnson gratefully acknowledging the praise, yet eager to get the focus back on his course work.
“I didn’t come here just to show up. I’m going to try and win. I’m going to play my ball and I’m going to play hard,” Johnson said. “It felt good to start competing again. That’s my business life.”
Business got dramatically better last week when the 31-year-old Iowan outlasted the field at difficult Augusta National to beat Tiger Woods, Rory Sabbatini and Retief Goosen by two strokes. Since then, Johnson has appeared with David Letterman, met presidential candidate Barack Obama and gotten congratulatory calls from a fellow Regis High alum, former NFL MVP Kurt Warner.
And the adulation didn’t stop at Harbour Town. Johnson was greeted with cheers at nearly every green. “Nice Masters,” a teen fan shouted. Johnson, grinning, flashed a surfer’s “hang 10” sign back.
As he was surrounded by TV cameras after the round, pro Billy Andrade waved at him with congratulations. “Thanks, buddy,” Johnson said.
Johnson says he’s done his best the past 72 hours to remain the same, humble, unassuming family man from Cedar Rapids.
“I’m not a rock star,” Johnson said. “Far from it.”
Most Masters winners don’t usually make the drive to South Carolina’s coast for this week’s stop. Vijay Singh in 2000 was the last to try and pair Harbour Town’s tartan winner’s coat with the green jacket.
Johnson started quickly with a birdie on his first hole, the 10th. By the time he rolled in a birdie on the par-5 second, Johnson was 3 under and hot on Kelly’s heels. That’s when Johnson’s whirlwind week took its toll.
Johnson’s approach on the third hole dribbled off the back, leading to a bogey. He three-putted from 65 feet on the par-3 fourth hole for a second straight bogey.
After a crowd-pleasing eagle on the par-5 fifth, Johnson blew up on No. 6, four-putting from 35 feet for a double-bogey 6.
“I miss. I miss. I miss. I make,” said Johnson, parroting Seve Ballesteros’ famous explanation for his Augusta four-putt nearly two decades ago.
“Obviously that was just a complete mental lapse. So, whatever.”
Kelly, three shots behind Johnson last week, threatened to steal the Harbour Town spotlight from the new Masters champ. When Kelly knocked in a 4-foot birdie putt on his 15th hole, No. 6, he stood 9-under par with an outside shot to break 60. The run ended two holes later after Kelly put his approach into a bunker and could not save par.
Kelly was glad for the sunny, mild conditions after last week’s major Augusta chill.
“I wouldn’t put this golf course that far away from Augusta, but it just shows how difficult Augusta was,” Kelly said.
Els usually plays well at Harbour Town — he has six top-10 finishes in eight previous trips — and that continued Thursday. Els opened the round going birdie-eagle, then holed a sand shot on the par-3 17th to move two strokes behind Kelly.
Johnson’s visit here was a shot in the arm to a tournament minus major draws such as Woods and Phil Mickelson. Jim Furyk, No. 2 in the world, heads a field that includes just three of the world’s top 10 players.
“The only adjustment I think is that Monday, Tuesday and Wednesday were just a whirlwind,” Johnson said. “I won a very prestigious event. But at the same time, you’ve got to stay in the present.”
For Johnson that means “about 17 hours” of sleep before Friday afternoon’s tee time. Then back to the place he feels most comfortable — the golf course.
Divots: Daniel Chopra was disqualified for taking an illegal drop on the 17th hole. … Justin Rose, who tied for fifth at the Masters, withdrew before his first-round tee time. He was replaced by Parker McLachlin. … Rocco Mediate withdrew because of back problems. … Five-time Verizon Heritage champion Davis Love III took double-bogey 6 on the 18th hole and was 11 shots off the lead after a 74. Love has not missed the cut at Harbour Town since 1994.