By Mark Lamport-Stokes
KOHLER, Wisconsin (Reuters) - Long-hitting American Dustin Johnson used strong ball-striking and a strategy of patience to return to familiar territory at the PGA Championship on Thursday - in contention for a major title.
Johnson, who shared sixth place at the Masters in April and three-putted on the final hole at the U.S. Open in June to drop back into a tie for second, fired a sparkling six-under-par 66 at Whistling Straits to set the first-round pace.
With his athletic power game allied to his customary laid-back demeanor as he worked his way around the links-style layout, the 31-year-old eagled the par-five 16th and added five birdies and one bogey to surge to the top of the leaderboard.
"I thought I did a great job of just staying patient, hitting the shots that the course allowed me to hit," said Johnson, still seeking a first major victory. "And I struck the ball well today, so I was very pleased."
His eagle came on his seventh hole of the round where he blasted a huge drive down the left side of the fairway, then struck a four-iron to 30 feet and drained the putt.
Johnson is back at the venue where five years ago he incurred a two-stroke penalty on the final hole of the last PGA Championship at Whistling Straits, costing him a spot in a playoff.
Asked what he had learned over the years about being in the lead at majors or trying to play catch-up, Johnson replied: "It doesn't really bother me either way.
"You still just got to play your game, no matter where you're at. When you try to push and try to make things happen, that's when you can make some big numbers at the majors."
Criticized by some for his inability to finish strong in the majors, Johnson felt he could only point to this year's British Open, where he faded badly after leading at the halfway mark.
"I played pretty well at the U.S. Open on the weekend, I played pretty well at the Masters on the weekend," he said. "At the British Open, I didn't play well on the weekend.
"Today I really felt like I had my ball under control, a lot like I did at the U.S. Open. I feel a lot more comfortable right now. We'll just have to see what happens. It's only the first round, we've still got a lot of golf to play."
(Editing by Larry Fine)