PARAMUS, N.J. — Dustin Johnson could tell his 6-iron was close to perfect from the flight of the shot, where it landed and the reaction of the fans behind the par-3 sixth green .
The ball rolled around the left edge of the cup, inches from a hole-in-one.
Or were they cheering because Tiger Woods teed off on the hole ahead of them?
“I was kind of debating whether they were yelling for me or him,” Johnson said with a smile.
Woods returned to the PGA Tour’s postseason Thursday by making two birdies, two bogeys and 14 pars in a most ordinary round of even-par 71, attracting thousands of fans who kept relatively quiet.
They missed a better show right behind them.
Johnson made birdies without having any idea where his tee shots were going until the closing stretch. U.S. Open and PGA champion Brooks Koepka made birdies by smashing driver as often as he could and muscling it out of the deep rough with wedges when he missed. FedEx Cup champion Justin Thomas made his share of birdies while trying to avoid hitting in the trees.
Kevin Tway, Jamie Lovemark and Vaughn Taylor wound up sharing the lead at 5-under 66 among the early starters at rain-softened Ridgewood Country Club.
Johnson and Koepka were right behind in the group at 67.
Woods might have expected better after hitting nine of 14 fairways. He just never gave himself many chances.
“One of those days where I just kept having the half-club and was never able to fully swing at it and having to hit little softies in there, control my flight, maneuver the golf ball,” Woods said.
Tway, Taylor and Lovemark all need to play well to make sure they are among the top 100 who advance to the next event at the TPC Boston. Tway and Lovemark are ranked in the mid-80s, while Taylor is at No. 112.
Tway began his week playing in a charity event with good friend Morgan Hoffmann, who is coping with muscular dystrophy. Hoffmann is a reminder of how far players can go with the FedEx Cup points quadrupled in the playoffs.
“Morgan Hoffmann came in at 124 and went all the way to The Tour Championship,” Tway said, referring to 2014. “That’s kind of the plan, try to play as good as you can and go as far as you can.”
As wild as he was, Johnson only got flustered on a few occasions, the first one before he even hit a shot. He was introduced by the starter as the 2011 champion of this tournament, which is true. But the world’s No. 1 player paused before sticking a tee in the ground, unsure what to do or say, when he straightened and reminded the starter, “I won last year, too.”
The other time came on the par-5 17th. By then he had played eight holes and hit one fairway. The other tee shots weren’t even close. He still was 4 under. But this tee shot was so far left Johnson, in a rare display of frustration, snatched the broken tee from the ground and tossed it away.
The ball was so deep in the hazard it wasn’t worth finding, and Johnson made triple bogey.
“I hit that ball 70 yards left of where I was looking,” he said. “If I’m trying to hit a high cut, if anything I’m going to over- cut it to the right. And it came off low and hooked. So I just laughed. Wasn’t funny when I made triple, though.”
To shoot 67 with a triple bogey was encouraging by the end of the day, because seven birdies meant he was doing something right.
Koepka, coming off a record win at the PGA Championship two weeks ago, looked like he was playing the game the right way. He pounded driver everywhere except for the par 3s, and on the first hole because the wind picked up and was at his back.
He flew his drive 310 yards on the par-5 17th and hammered a long iron to 25 feet, a great shot that received moderate applause because all the fans already were making their way up the 18th fairway with Woods. Koepka made the eagle and finished with a late birdie to offset a pair of bogeys in his round of 67.
It was a lonely walk, what with Johnson and Thomas (69) rarely walking in the fairways.
Hideki Matsuyama, Tommy Fleetwood and Paul Casey also were at 67, good starts for different reasons. Matsuyama is having his worst year and needs to play well these first two playoff events to bolster his chances of getting to East Lake for the Tour Championship. Casey and Ian Poulter have access to world ranking points in these strong fields as they try to earn automatic spots on Europe’s Ryder Cup team. Poulter birdied two of his last three holes for a 69.