AFP: Francesco Molinari birdied his final hole to grab the early lead at the Wells Fargo Championship as world number one Dustin Johnson had a solid round in his return from a back injury.
Italy’s Molinari chipped in from the rough on No. 18 for his eighth birdie of the day to open with a six-under 66 at the Eagle Point Golf Club in Wilmington, North Carolina.
Sweden’s Alex Noren, and Americans JB Holmes, Grayson Murray and Brian Campbell were tied for second after shooting 67s.
Ken Duke, Ben Martin and Northern Ireland’s Seamus Power fired four-under 68s and are two strokes back of Molinari.
The 34-year-old Molinari is seeking his first victory on the US PGA Tour. This is his 99th start since turning pro in 2004.
He has won four times on the European Tour including the Italian Open in 2006 and 2016. He also captured the 2010 WGC-HSBC Champions event in 2010 by beating Lee Westwood by one stroke.
Johnson shot a two-under 70 Thursday in a round that included four birdies, 12 pars and two bogeys.
His best stretch was back-to-back birdies on his front nine which comprised the par-three 15th and the par-four 16th holes.
On number 15, his 200-yard tee shot rolled down a slope towards the hole leaving him with a nine-foot putt for birdie.
This is Johnson’s first tournament since withdrawing from the Masters after injuring his back on the eve of the first major of the season.
He slipped and fell down a flight of stairs at a rental house in Augusta on the night before the tournament.
The 32-year-old American, who defends his first major title at next month’s US Open, is aiming to stretch a winning streak that has seen him capture his past three PGA starts.
“I thought I drove it nicely,” Johnson said. “Hit a lot of good iron shots. I’m happy with the way I played, for sure.
“As far as physically, no issues,” he added. “That’s a good thing. I just need to get some rounds in, get some more reps, but I feel like the golf swing’s in good shape.
“If I hit it like I did today the next few days, then I’ll be right there on Sunday.”