ST. ANDREWS, Scotland -- What the USGA and Chambers Bay couldn't produce, the R&A and St. Andrews provided Thursday -- the playoff that wasn't.
Dustin Johnson got a chance to play his next official round with Jordan Spieth, an opportunity he deprived himself of a month ago when he three-putted the 18th green and failed to force an 18-hole playoff in the U.S. Open.
It may be small consolation, but firing a flawless British Open-leading 7-under-par 65 to best the world No. 2 by a couple of strokes had to feel a little better than when he walked off Chambers Bay without even accepting his runner-up silver medal.
"We had a lot of fun out there today," Johnson said of his head-to-head opening round with Spieth and Hideki Matsuyama. "It's special when you're playing well. You always have a lot more fun when you're playing well."
While both Johnson and Spieth hovered atop the leaderboard all week in the U.S. Open, they never were paired together. Had Johnson made his 4-foot comeback putt on the 72nd hole, it would have set up an intriguing duel of massively contrasting styles.
It was striking to see how the two players dissected the complex riddle of the Old Course on Thursday -- and illuminating for Spieth as he tries to win his third consecutive major in his Grand Slam quest.
"If D.J. keeps driving it the way he is, then I'm going to have to play my best golf to have a chance," Spieth said. "It's hard to argue with somebody who's splitting bunkers at about 380 yards and just two-putting for birdie on five or six of the holes when there's only two par-5s. I don't have that in the bag, so I've got to make up for it with ball-striking."
Johnson produced five birdies and a relatively easy eagle en route to the lead, overpowering the downwind holes before scrambling to a couple of impressive par saves on 16 and 17 to avoid any blemishes on his card.
Spieth, on the other hand, used all of his guile and his putter to make seven birdies, including a curling 20-footer on the 18th to offset a pair of hiccups on 14 and 17 coming home. He has a confidence in his all-around game to avoid being intimidated by Johnson's athletic gifts.
"I've played enough golf with him to where I believe in my skill set that I can still trump that crazy ability that he has," Spieth said. "I expect when he stands on the tee it's going to be up there miles and down the fairway. I also expect that I can birdie each hole when I stand on the tee. It just happens to be a little different route."
That route has taken Spieth to the brink of an historic opportunity at age 21, while the 31-year-old Johnson keeps letting the major mantel slip on his shoulders.
Perhaps Johnson's greatest strength is his ability to forget. The 83 he shot at Pebble Beach, the bunker fiasco at Whistling Straits, the OB rocket at Royal St. George's and the three-putt at Chambers Bay might have left weaker players shattered.
Johnson, however, can shrug it off and get right back in another hunt.
"I don't really dwell in the past too much," he said. "You can't really change it, so there's no reason to worry about it."
While admitting that missing out on a playoff with Spieth was a "disappointment," Johnson sees his latest experience in the U.S. Open as a positive.
"Nothing bad happened at Chambers Bay," he insisted. "I wasn't disappointed, really. I played really well, did everything I was supposed to. I couldn't control what the ball was doing on the greens there. There's really no bad feelings from that, only good. I played really well and then it carried over to today."
The dynamics of an opening round compared to a two-man playoff are certainly not comparable. Spieth and Johnson chatted easily and often as they played the game's most historic course.
"You're kind of rooting for each other to get into contention versus on Sunday you're just rooting for yourself to just outplay the other," Spieth said.
Last month's events never came up among "good buddies."
"No chat about the U.S. Open at all, as I wouldn't imagine there would be," Spieth said. "I enjoy playing with Dustin. I've played a lot of golf with him. You know, it was an unfortunate ending to the (U.S.) Open in general, and today we just got off to a normal round of golf like always, and we were able to actually feed off each other and enjoy the day."
They'll go out again today in more trying conditions, with potential for wind and rain to bring out entirely different elements of their respective games. So Thursday was a day to set themselves apart with a low number.
"Everybody knows the weather Friday and Saturday is going to be very difficult, so today I thought was very important to get off to a good start and try to make as many birdies as you can," Johnson said.
We'll never know what might have happened in an 18-hole showdown given the chance last month, but it's evident that we haven't seen the last of Spieth vs. Johnson.
"I certainly expect him to be a guy to beat every single time you play," said Spieth, the guy who's been the man to beat in every major this year. "He's got as much talent or more than anybody. You just have to outplay him."
On Thursday at this Open, nobody could.
This article was written by Scott Michaux from The Augusta Chronicle, Ga. and was legally licensed through the NewsCred publisher network.
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