By Jim Peltz
8:20 PM EST, December 5, 2013
Facing an uphill, 25-foot putt for birdie on the 14th hole at Sherwood Country Club, Zach Johnson struck the ball hard, "too hard," he said.
No matter. The ball went into the cup instead of sailing by, helping Johnson to a five-under-par 67 and the first-round lead Thursday in the Northwestern Mutual World Challenge.
Matt Kuchar finished one shot behind Johnson, and Hunter Mahan and Bubba Watson were three shots behind with two-under 70s in the tournament that benefits Tiger Woods' charities.
"It's nothing more than a decent start," Johnson said.
Woods — a five-time winner of the event — also looked set to shoot 70 when he came to the 18th green with a three-foot putt for birdie. But he missed the putt and settled for a one-under 71.
Kuchar, playing with Woods, hit his approach on the 18th hole to within a foot of the cup and tapped in for his 68.
Johnson, the 2007 Masters champion who finished second in the World Challenge in 2007 and 2011, had seven birdies and two bogeys in Thursday's round.
The birdie putt on the 14th hole "wasn't an easy putt," he said. "It was a double-breaker: right to left and left to right. You're trying to lag it close . . . and that one actually went in."
Overall, "I thought the wind was a little difficult to manage today," Johnson said. "It didn't seem to be consistent."
Two-time winner and defending champion Graeme McDowell birdied the first two holes but ultimately settled for an even-par 72 after suffering four bogeys during the round.
"The course hasn't been this tough in a couple of years," McDowell said. "The greens are much firmer. The speed of them caught me by surprise a little bit today."
Woods bogeyed the first hole, a par-four, by missing another short putt. But that was his only bogey in a round that also included birdies on the fifth and 11th holes, both par-fives. Still, the world's top-ranked player struggled to achieve any momentum.
"I shot about the score — maybe could have gotten one or two more [strokes] out of it," Woods said.
"I felt like I hit the ball decent. The very first hole I missed a little short one and missed a short one on 18, so those are a couple shots right there."
And despite Johnson's five-under start, no one is running away with the tournament, Woods said.
Jim Furyk, who won the World Challenge in 2009, also shot 72, and three players finished one over: Rory McIlroy, Bill Haas and Webb Simpson.email@example.com
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