Tiger Woods must prove he still knows how to finish a major.
Bouncing back from a tough loss last weekend, Johnson opened with a 5-under 66 on a sunny Thursday at Muirfield — another brilliant start after a 65 at Lytham last year.
“I don't know what the secret is,” Johnson said. “I hit some nice shots and obviously I putted really, really well.”
Can he keep it going? A year ago, the 2007 Masters champion followed up with a 74 in the second round on the way to a ninth-place finish.
“This game demands resilience,” Johnson said. “That just comes with experience.”
Woods has plenty of experience winning majors — he's got 14 of `em — but it's been more than five years since he captured the last one, the longest drought of his career in the tournaments that matter most.
Woods also got off to a strong start, shooting a 69 in the increasingly difficult conditions of the afternoon, but don't get too worked up about his chances just yet.
He shot 67 in the opening round each of the last two years.
He didn't win either time.
The world's top-ranked player yanked his opening tee shot off a lone tree far left of the fairway and was forced to take an unplayable lie, leading to bogey. But a stretch of three birdies in four holes after the turn moved Woods into contention, and he added another two-putt birdie at the par-5 17th after a couple of iron shots that just kept rolling and rolling on the hard ground.
“It was tough,” Woods said. “The golf course progressively got more dried out and more difficult as we played. I'm very pleased to shoot anything even par or better.”
Rory McIlroy, ranked No. 2 in the world, is still trying to recapture the form he showed last August, when he captured his second major title with a runaway victory at the PGA Championship. At the moment, he's not even close.
The 24-year-old from Northern Ireland has been mired in a baffling slump since changing equipment, and he showed no signs of snapping out of it as he hacked his way to a 79 — the second-worst round of his Open career.
The only time McIlroy shot worse was an 80 at St. Andrews in 2010, but that was more a product of a brutal wind than poor shots.
This time, he could blame only himself. Heck, he didn't even beat birthday boy Nick Faldo, who stirred up a bit of a tempest this week when he advised McIlroy to spend more time focused on golf rather than off-the-course pursuits.
Faldo, who turned 56 on Thursday, matched McIlroy's score even though he's barely played at all the last three years.
Under brilliant blue skies, the temperature climbed into the low 80s and the wind off the Firth of Forth wasn't too much of a hindrance for the morning starters. Some spectators broke out umbrellas, only it was to fend off rays instead of rain.
The greens were slick as ice, having baked in the unseasonably dry Scottish weather over the past few weeks, and several golfers — Phil Mickelson and Ian Poulter among them — complained about the tough pin placements given the speed of the putting surfaces.
“The 18th needs a windmill and a clown face,” Poulter griped.
But McIlroy had plenty of problems just getting to the green.
Time and again, he found himself whacking at the ball out of the rough or trying to escape the treacherous bunkers. His most telling sequence came at the 15th, where he drove it into the tall grass, chopped it out just short of the green, then sent a putt screaming past the flag — right into a bunker on the other side. He let out a sigh that said everything — a once-dominant player who, as Paul Azinger said earlier in the week, looks “adrift.”
“I wish I could stand here and tell you guys what's wrong and how to make it right,” McIlroy said. “I don't know what you can do. You just have to try and play your way out. Sometimes I feel like I'm walking out there and I'm unconscious.”
Johnson, on the other hand, quickly shook off his playoff defeat in the John Deere Classic. He didn't arrive at Muirfield until Monday morning after making bogey on the 72nd hole and losing to 19-year-old Jordan Spieth, who became the youngest winner on the PGA Tour since 1931.
The loss did nothing to dampen Johnson's confidence.
Quite the opposite, actually.
He got on a roll with an eagle at the par-5 fifth, and birdies at the next two holes sent him to the lead.
“If anything from last week, what I've embraced is the fact that I'm playing great and I can put that into play, and I'm certainly somewhat confident in what I'm doing, confident in my routines, confident in my walk out there, confident in my lines,” he said.
Mark O'Meara ripped through the front nine as though he was in his prime — not a 56-year-old who has combined to shoot 76 over par in the past decade at golf's oldest major. The 1998 Open champion shot 31 on the front before stumbling a bit with three bogeys.
But O'Meara rolled in a curling, 35-foot eagle putt at the 17th, lipped out a birdie putt at the tough 18th, and finished with a 67, tied with Spain's Rafael Cabrera-Bello and just one stroke off the lead.
Not that it's unusual for an old-timer to play well in the Open. Four years ago, Tom Watson nearly won at age 59.
O'Meara wasn't even the only 50-something player on Thursday's leaderboard. Fifty-four-year-old Tom Lehman shot 68.
Miguel Angel Jimenez, Brandt Snedeker, Dustin Johnson joined Lehman at two shots back. Another shot behind were major champions Woods, Mickelson, Angel Cabrera and Todd Hamilton, along with Spieth, whose John Deere victory got him into the Open. The teenager hardly looked out of place, making only one bogey the entire round.
Hamilton's 69 certainly looked out of place. He now plays on a minor-league circuit in the U.S., and this was his lowest round in the Open since he improbably won the championship in 2004.
“I didn't really know what to expect,” he said. “I hit a couple of drives early with the driver and made a few putts and that kind of settled me down, and I didn't try to do a lot of stuff that I didn't feel comfortable doing.”