BLAINE, Minn. — The virus outbreak has squelched the upbeat and welcoming vibe that marked the debut of the 3M Open last year.
The fans might have been absent, but the soft greens were plenty friendly Thursday for Richy Werenski to take full advantage.
“I have a good feeling they’ll get nice and firm as the week goes on, but you start it online, it will stay there. They’re really good,” said Werenski, who made a short birdie putt on the par-5 18th for an 8-under 63 and the first-round lead.
Dustin Johnson withdrew because of a back injury after a 78.
Roger Sloan of Merritt, B.C., David Hearn of Brantford, Ont., and Calgary’s Aaron Crawford — who earned his way into the 3M Open as a Monday qualifier — opened with 69s to come in at 2 under.
Michael Gligic, from Burlington, Ont., is well back after shooting a 1-over 72.
Werenski broke a tie with Michael Thompson with his ninth and last birdie on the warm, windy afternoon at the TPC Twin Cities. Defending champion Matthew Wolff, Tony Finau, Nick Watney, Ryan Moore, Xinjun Zhang and Max Homa were tied for third at 65. There’s an 11-way tie behind them at 5 under.
“To play a round like I did today, you’ve got to make the putts, but … I feel like my irons have really been coming along,” said the 24-year-old Werenski, who is winless on the PGA Tour and ranked 248th in the world.
Werenski has had two unexpected layoffs after finishing 126th in the FedEx Cup standings last year. He broke his wrist in the fall. Then came the pandemic that shut down the tour this spring.
“The goal at the beginning of the year was getting in the top 70, and I think I’m just a little bit more free than I kind of have been the beginning of the year,” Werenski said. “That makes a difference.”
Thompson, who entered the week in 151st place in the FedEx Cup standings, enjoyed a bogey-free round, also thanks to the accuracy of his short game.
“It’s really just being diligent about playing my own game. I’m not the longest hitter out here. I’m a really good putter, so I’m going to rely on that,” Thompson said.
Johnson’s departure further depleted the star power of the second edition of the event that landed right after the Memorial and right before the World Golf Championship and the PGA Championship following the pandemic-forced reshuffling of the schedule. Johnson, Brooks Koepka, Tommy Fleetwood and Finau were the only entrants in the top 25 of the world ranking. This tournament, like all the others since golf’s restart, is being played without spectators.
Johnson’s victory at the Travelers Championship in Cromwell, Connecticut, last month did not spark a post-shutdown surge for the fourth-ranked player in the world. After posting back-to-back 80s last week at the Memorial for the highest 36-hole score of his pro career, Johnson’s first appearance at the 3M Open north of Minneapolis lasted just one round.
At the end of his first nine, Johnson started the 599-yard, dog-leg 18th hole with a solid drive off the tee. With 209 yards to get to the flag, he used his 6-iron for a shot — “perfect,” he said — that was swallowed up in the pond just short of the rough.
“Hit it right at it and never once did I think it was going to go in the water,” said Johnson, who did mention his back during a brief post-round interview.
His next two tries met the same fate. Three penalty strokes later, Johnson finally landed his ball on the green for a tap-in putt and a quadruple-bogey nine on the scorecard.
“Kind of the same last week. I just struggled with my iron play, and that makes it difficult,” he said.
Watney, who was the first tour player to test positive for the coronavirus, at the RBC Heritage on Hilton Head Island, South Carolina, failed to make the cut two weeks ago at the Workday Charity Open in Dublin, Ohio, after a two-round score of 150.
The 39-year-old Watney, who has five career PGA Tour victories, went back to the basics in practice last week — aim, balance, posture — while most of his peers played the Memorial. Having emerged from the anxiety and tedium of quarantine, grateful his symptoms were mild, Watney was eager to make his six birdies the focus of his post-round interview with reporters.
“I’m trying to put that to bed, get past it and hopefully play some nice golf after coming down with that,” Watney said. “It’s great to be up here after playing a good round as opposed to just other things.”
More AP golf coverage: https://apnews.com/golf
Dave Campbell, The Associated Press