MEMPHIS, Tenn. — Davis Love III is busy still trying to play his way back into shape after back surgery in February. Playing with Brandt Snedeker and Dustin Johnson, he did a bit better than just keep up.
The 49-year-old Love shot a 4-under 66 for his best round of the year Thursday for a share of the lead with five other players, including former Georgia golfer Harris English, after the first round of the St. Jude Classic, the final event before the U.S. Open next week at Merion in Ardmore, Pa.
“I still hit some bad shots,” Love said.
“At the Players and Memorial, I felt like I was playing better than I was scoring. I think it’s rust. I’m excited to be back, and I’m anxious and I want to play better than I’m playing. I’m a little bit tired from the two 36-hole qualifiers as well. You got to be a little bit more patient and polished. That’s going to take some rounds of golf to get back.”
Stuart Appleby, Nathan Green, Martin Flores and Glen Day also pushed their way into the lead on a day where at least three others had a piece of the top spot lead at some point.
Defending champ Dustin Johnson was 5 under through six holes, taking advantage of near perfect conditions at the TPC Southwind with a temperature in the low 80s and only a slight breeze early. But Johnson finished with a 67 and was tied with 10 others including David Toms, a two-time winner here, and Shawn Stefani, who was tied for the lead before he hit into a fairway bunker and bogeyed No. 18.
Snedeker, currently No. 6 in the world, opened with a 70. Boo Weekley, who won at Colonial, shot a 68 and was tied with seven others. Phil Mickelson had a 71.
Love took off in February for surgery to relieve numbness and weakness caused by spinal stenosis and bone spurs. He didn’t play at all in March or April, and this is his fourth tournament back on tour. He tied for 29th at Memorial last week, and tied for third here a year ago in what wound up being his best finish of 2012.
He credited his good start to being grouped with Johnson and Snedeker, who also like to play fast.
“I tried to keep up with Dustin and Brandt,” Love said.
Love made the turn at 2 under and birdied Nos. 10 and 11 to move into a five-way tie at 4 under with six others a stroke back at that point. He bogeyed No. 12 and bogeyed the par-3 14th. But Love birdied two of his final three holes to finish with a piece of the lead.
Appleby had five birdies and a bogey for his best round this year. The Australian with nine victories hasn’t won since The Greenbrier Classic in 2010, and his best this year was a tie for 35th at the Heritage in South Carolina. He said he was surprised the scores weren’t lower on a day where there wasn’t any wind.
“I thought there were some more birdies out there,” Appleby said. “I think just with the pace of the greens if you’re above the hole it’s tricky. I’m happy with the way I played today. Anybody who got under par today, the scoreboard, certainly fought to get there.”
English, a 23-year-old from Georgia, got to 5 under on his back nine only to bogey his next hole at No. 5. Flores also got to 5 under when he birdied No. 13 to take the lead to himself only to double bogey the 14th after hitting into a bunker. He birdied No. 16 to get back into the lead group.
Green, who lost his card last year, was the clubhouse leader at midday. The Australian who won the 2009 Canadian Open has been busy rebuilding his chipping and putting. This is his best round this year, but it had been a while since Green had seen his name at the top of a leaderboard.
“I was starting to get nervous seeing my name on the board and made two good up and downs to finish off the round, which is nice,” Green said after hitting into bunkers on Nos. 17 and 18 on his way in.
Mickelson struggled on Nos. 15-17 with two bogeys and a double bogey on the par-5 16th where he hit into a greenside bunker into the rough and into another bunker before finally holing out. He said he wasn’t sharp with his short game on small, fast greens that don’t hold shots well in his first competitive round in a month.
“This is great because it’s a great test,” Mickelson said. “The guy that strikes it well is going to have a big advantage, but when you do miss greens, you’ve got to be pretty sharp with your short game because the lies around the greens are some of the most difficult that we get.”
But for someone who hadn’t played in so long, Mickelson said he was happy with how he hit the ball.
“It’s about as good as I’ve been striking it, and I feel like there’s a good round in me,” Mickelson said.
Notes: Paul Goydos, who shot a 73, may have re-injured his left wrist hitting out of some deep rough on 15. This was his first event in more than a year after extensive surgery on his wrist. He wrote on Twitter that he got some therapy after his round and planned to ice every hour but will not know how bad it is until he warms up Friday morning. …Guan Tianglang, the 14-year-old from China who made the cut at the Masters, opened with a 73. … Matt Bettencourt withdrew because of illness after shooting a 39 on the front nine.