By Mark Lamport-Stokes
KOHLER, Wisconsin (Reuters) - Dustin Johnson, so often the nearly man in recent majors, took advantage of relatively calm early conditions to take the clubhouse lead in the opening round of the 97th PGA Championship on Thursday.
While most golf fans eagerly awaited the 'Rory and Jordan' show set for the afternoon at Whistling Straits, the long-hitting American racked up an eagle at the par-five 16th, five birdies and a bogey to card a six-under-par 66.
It was a rewarding and timely opening round for Johnson, who five years ago incurred a two-stroke penalty on the final hole of the last PGA Championship to be played here that cost him a spot in a playoff for the title.
"I thought I did a great job of just staying patient, hitting the shots that the course allowed me to hit," Johnson told reporters. "And I struck the ball well today, so I was very pleased."
Fellow Americans Matt Kuchar, Russell Henley, Harris English and J.B. Holmes, Australians Jason Day and Matt Jones, and New Zealander Danny Lee opened with 68s as the wind began to pick up on the visually spectacular but challenging links-style layout.
"I felt good out there today," said world number five Day, who tied for 10th on his PGA Championship debut at Whistling Straits in 2010. "I feel like we have got the better side of the draw currently right now.
"And fortunately for us we got out there and got to attack the golf course. We only got the really brute force of the wind coming in the last few holes."
Englishmen Justin Rose and James Morrison, Denmark's Thomas Bjorn and American Brendan Steele returned 69s while Japan's Hideki Matsuyama, who got to five-under before bogeying three of his last four holes, was among a group bunched on 70.
Four-times champion Tiger Woods, who won the most recent of his 14 majors title at the 2008 U.S. Open, did not benefit from his early tee time as he mixed two birdies with five bogeys on the way to a 75.
"Well, I hit it great today, but I made actually nothing," said Woods, who totaled 33 putts on the superbly manicured greens at Whistling Straits. "Probably one of the worst putting rounds I've had in a very long time."
The 39-year-old American, whose world ranking has shockingly plummeted to 278th, has missed the cut in his last two majors and faces an uphill climb if he is to avoid a third in a row for the first time in his career.
Rory McIlroy and Jordan Spieth, who between them have won four of the last five majors played, were among the late starters in a high-profile grouping with British Open champion Zach Johnson.
After their first eight holes played in front of massive galleries, Spieth was even for the day while both McIlroy and Johnson were one over.
The return from an ankle injury by world number one McIlroy to defend his PGA Championship crown this week and Spieth's bid to win a third grand slam title this year have marked out the season's final major as extra special.
(Editing by Larry Fine)