LA QUINTA, Calif. — Zach Johnson knows he didn’t work as hard as he normally would on his golf game last year as his duties as U.S. Ryder Cup captain naturally took over his priorities.
“Now it’s time to get back to work,” Johnson said after an opening-round 10-under 62 for a share of the first-round lead in The American Express in La Quinta. “I’ve enjoyed the work. I’ve enjoyed the sweat. Love what I’m doing off the golf course, on the golf course.”
Johnson’s round of 10 birdies, including six in a row to close his front nine at La Quinta Country Club, still only gave him a share of the lead with Alex Noren, who played the same course in near-perfect weather for the 65th annual PGA Tour event.
Two other golfers, Rico Hoey and Christiaan Bezuidenhout, joined the cavalry charge up the leaderboard with 63s. Among the nine players at 64 are Xander Schauffele, Patrick Cantlay and amateur Nick Dunlap, the current U.S. Amateur champion in the field on a sponsor’s exemption.
“La Quinta Country Club is legitimately one of the purest places we play on the PGA Tour year-in, year-out,” Johnson said. “The grass is — it’s almost looks fake. If you have it going and you have some sort of rhythm and you’re seeing the lines on the putting green, because they’re pure, you can put a number up.”
For Johnson, an eight-time winner on the PGA Tour including Masters and British Open titles, 2023 was mostly about leading the U.S. Ryder Cup team. While the United States fell to Europe in the matches, Johnson said the experience and being around the younger players in the game may have rejuvenated his own game.
“I relish that. I think that’s a luxury. I think that’s somewhat of my tenure,” said the 47-year-old Johnson. “They kind of keep me young to some degree, motivated. Just watching them is, to say it’s impressive would be an understatement. So, I say all that as far as their golf game goes, but the most impressive thing to me is who they are.”
Johnson started his round at La Quinta slowly with one birdie in his first three holes. But he caught fire after that on La Quinta’s scoring holes in the middle of the front nine, making six consecutive birdies including on the consecutive short par-5s at Nos. 5 and 6. That produced a 7-under 29 on the front nine, and he added three birdies on the back nine.
Noren also made 10 birdies at La Quinta, but added an eagle on…