Johnson leads in Memphis, back in top form before US Open

Dustin Johnson reacts after missing a putt on the 9th hole during the first round of the FedEx St Jude Classic golf tournament at TPC Southwind. (Reuters pic)

MEMPHIS: Dustin Johnson, his game as sizzling as the Memphis weather, made a 110-yard eagle on his way to a one-stroke halfway lead at the FedEx St Jude Classic on Friday.

World number two Johnson turned on the afterburners after a pedestrian opening nine, holing out from the fairway at his 10th hole, the par-four first, where his ball took a couple of bounces and disappeared into the cup.

Remarkably, he almost achieved the extremely rare feat of consecutive eagles from the fairway when his approach from 113 yards at the next imparted heavy backspin and rolled back directly towards the hole.

Though the ball broke sharply left as it slowed, finishing a couple of inches wide, the tap-in birdie contributed to a second round seven-under 63 on a languid day at TPC Southwind in Tennessee.

“I hit a lot of great shots and had a lot of good looks at birdies,” Johnson said after posting a 10-under 130 total, one stroke ahead of fellow Americans Ryan Blaum (64) and Andrew Putnam (64).

Brooks Koepka, a week before defending his US Open title, carded 69 to slip five strokes behind, while Phil Mickelson (70) fell six adrift.

Johnson won his first major title at the 2016 US Open and was a runaway world number one heading into last April’s Masters, only to bruise his back when he fell down stairs on tournament eve.

He could not start the tournament and though he made a quick recovery, has not quite recaptured his old form in the 13 months since returning to action.

While many of the game’s elite are having this week off to prepare for the US Open, Johnson decided to play his way into the second major championship of the year at Shinnecock Hills.

“When you’re around or in the lead you can definitely feel the pressure but I like it,” Johnson, 33, said.

“I hadn’t played a whole lot the last couple of months. I felt it was more beneficial to play here and be sharp going into the US Open than to stay home and maybe go up there a couple of days early.”

Mickelson, who needs to win next week to become the sixth man to complete the modern grand slam, also likes playing the week before majors, though he was not sharp on Friday.

“I didn’t really have it today but I was able to close out the round with a couple of birdies and get it back to even,” he said.

“My iron play needs to be a little bit better. And when I miss a green I’ve got to be sharper around the greens.”