At an event with a field of just 78 players, most would assume Brooks Koepka’s opening-round eight-under 64 would have a good chance of holding up as the low score of the tournament. That lasted all of a day thanks to World No.1 Dustin Johnson, who looked like his 2017 pre-Masters self on Friday in China, posting a bogey-free nine-under 63 to grab a one-shot lead over Koepka at 13-under 131.
A 63 didn’t seem to be in the cards early on in Johnson’s round at Sheshan International Golf Club in Shanghai, having have made just one birdie and six pars on his opening seven holes. But the 16-time US PGA Tour winner made every putt he saw from there, holing four birdies on his next six holes, including a 28-footer at the 10th and a 14-footer at the 13th. Johnson made his final par of the day at the par-5 14th, before finishing the round with four consecutive birdies, leading to a back-nine seven-under 29.
“Obviously I played very well today, but I actually got a putter about 20 minutes before I teed off,” Johnson said, “It’s the [TaylorMade] Spider, so it’s one that I’ve used before, but I wasn’t really pleased with the one I played with yesterday.”
“The guys here in China made me one, and I got it right before I walked to the tee, hit a few putts on the practice green with it and I was like ‘Oh, this will work pretty well.’ Then I went out and holed a lot of putts, so, I kind of like it.”
Considering his day on the greens, perhaps Johnson will keep the Spider in the bag in the near future. It’s Johnson’s second 63 at Sheshan International, the first since he did it in the second round of the 2013 WGC-HSBC Champions, when he won with a record score of 24 under. The 2016 US Open champion is seeking his 17th career tour victory, one that would put him inside the top-50 on the all-time wins list.
Just one back of Johnson is his close buddy, Koepka, whose bogey-free four-under 68 puts him at 12-under 132 for the tournament. His round actually got off to a much more promising start than Johnson’s, with birdies on his opening two holes, but he wouldn’t make another until the 16th, and one more at the 17th. Saturday will mark the eighth time Koepka and Johnson have been paired together in the third round on the PGA Tour, with Johnson besting Koepka four of the first seven.
Justin Rose and Kiradech Aphibarnrat are four back at nine-under 135. Rose’s four-under 68 featured six birdies and two bogeys, while Thailand’s Aphibarnrat made five birdies, one bogey and one double bogey in his round of two-under 70. It’s Rose’s third appearance in the WGC-HSBC Champions, where he finished 48th in 2015 and solo fifth in 2014. For Aphibarnrat, it’s also his third, and any finish inside the top-30 would be his best in the event.
Patrick Reed sits in solo fifth at eight-under 136 after carding a two-under 70. Matthew Fitzpatrick, Matt Kuchar, Brian Harman and Henrik Stenson are all six back at seven-under 137.
Scott Hend is the best of the seven-strong Australian contingent. He shot 68 to get to five-under par, which is T-12 and eight shots behind Johnson.