The fact that Thursday's first round of the Shell Houston Open teed off a mere week before the highly anticipated Masters didn't stop a quality field from flocking to the Golf Club of Houston in Humble, Texas.
On the strength of an eight-under 64, Charley Hoffman ascended to the top of the leaderboard, besting four other golfers, including Dustin Johnson, by one stroke.
PGA Tour Media highlighted how Hoffman has struggled this season coming off a stellar 2014-15:
Perhaps a familiar venue and the lure of a major on the horizon was what Hoffman needed to bounce back.
Justin Ray of Golf Channel referenced why it may not be such a surprise to see Hoffman faring well thus far:
Hoffman tied for 11th at last year's Shell Houston Open, which preceded a hot start at the Masters, where he entered the third round in the final pairing alongside eventual champion Jordan Spieth.
Speaking of Spieth, having just surrendered his world No. 1 ranking to Jason Day last week, he showed signs of life Thursday in his home state, carding a five-under 67 to put himself in the hunt.
The first of four birdies on Spieth's opening nine came at the par-four second in flashy style, via the PGA Tour:
Spieth lost this tournament in a playoff during the 2014-15 campaign but proceeded to claim the green jacket, U.S. Open title and FedEx Cup crown thereafter. Things didn't work out so badly, but one can presume Spieth is hoping to do better in Humble this time around.
While Spieth is the most notable player among the massive cluster at five under, Puerto Rico Open playoff runner-up Steve Marino is also in there and making the most of his Shell Houston Open bid.
Among the quartet who posted scores of 65 on Thursday, Johnson stands out—and not only because he's perhaps the most freakish athlete on the PGA Tour.
Johnson is in the conversation of "best player not to have won a major." To tie him back to Spieth, a three-putt on the 72nd hole at the 2015 U.S. Open cost Johnson a shot at his maiden major championship.
But he has the type of game to contend anywhere. He's already had nine wins on tour and closed his Thursday round by showing off what can happen when his game is firing on all cylinders.
At a daunting and long par-three ninth hole, the supremely talented American capitalized on his immense power by putting a lengthy tee shot closer than most of his competitors. Then he rolled in his seventh birdie of the round, via the PGA Tour:
So that was cool, but speaking of power, Johnson conquered the par-five No. 8 with relative ease, stuffing a 247-yard approach inside 10 feet and converting the eagle try.
ESPN.com's Jason Sobel noted Johnson is a force to be reckoned with:
Look out for Johnson, who could be dangerous at Augusta National if he gathers momentum at the Golf Club of Houston.
One more big-name mention who deserves recognition is Phil Mickelson. The three-time Masters champion is known for getting competitive reps in before a major and looked good in the Shell Houston Open's first round.
Mickelson posted a three-under 69 with birdies at his final two holes, Nos. 8 and 9. That sterling finish included a saucy reaction to his tee shot at the ninth, via the PGA Tour:
As Ray pointed out, Mickelson is 61 under par at the Shell Houston Open since 2011, which is the best by 18 strokes in that span.
To get back to Hoffman, as his first-round performance deserves the utmost acclaim, he began his day on the back nine and birdied four of his first five holes. His only dropped shot came at the par-three 16th, where he failed to get up and down from a greenside bunker.
Undeterred by the dropped shot, Hoffman parred to make the turn at three under and proceeded to card four straight birdies at Nos. 1 through 4 to begin his second nine. A stressfree two-putt birdie at the reachable par-five eighth got Hoffman to eight under.
Baltimore Ravens safety Eric Weddle was pulling for Hoffman, who may not be a household name to casual golf fans but had the attention of an NFL star:
Putting has held Hoffman back this season. He entered this week ranked 151st in total putting, so he'll have to continue proving himself on the greens to remain in contention.
Much of the focus will remain on Spieth as he gears up for his defense of the green jacket. This week's event may be thrilling, but the Masters is an unavoidable storyline.
Other world-class players who have been in magnificent form of late include Day and Rory McIlroy as well as past Masters winners Adam Scott and Bubba Watson—none of whom are in the Shell Houston Open field.
That's why fans should keep a keen eye on Johnson, in particular, among the first-round contenders. He has a talent level similar to Day's, and similar to what happened for the Aussie starting last season, the floodgates could open for Johnson to come into his own soon.
Hoffman noted he's been comfortable at the Golf Club of Houston, where he's never missed a cut in nine prior starts.
"Houston has treated me well," he said, per Golf Channel's Will Gray. "The rough is not too long. It's nice to get the good contact on the ball from the fairway, and somehow I usually putt fairly well."
Getting back into the top 10 might be good enough for someone like Hoffman, who elaborated on his troubles early this season but also emphasized he's in it to win it, per Gray:
The tournaments I played well in the last few weeks, I've shot 3, 4 over on the back nine on Sunday when I've been going from winning the golf tournament to 12th or 15th place. That's big positions on the PGA Tour. Early in the year I was struggling a little bit, the putter was acting up and I wasn't driving it great. You go through lulls throughout the year.
I learned a long time ago, I entered golf tournaments to try to win them, not try to make cuts. Making cuts is a great thing, but we play the golf tournaments to win golf tournaments, not just to base a resume off of cuts. I'm going to try to put myself in contention and have a chance to win.
Johnson spoke about how important he felt it was to get in on the action in Humble after appearing in only six prior stateside tour events in the calendar year and losing early in the World Golf Championships-Dell Match Play.
"I felt like I needed to get some more rounds in. Especially after I lost the first round, I thought I was going to be out of there pretty quickly,” he said, per Gray. "That's why I decided to play here. I just felt like I needed to play a few more competitive rounds and get the game in really good shape going into Augusta."
Mickelson praised the Shell Houston Open for preparing him for another stroll down Magnolia Lane, per Gray: "It gives you an opportunity to really prepare for next week. I'm trying to get my game sharp, and this tournament allows me the opportunity to sharpen it."
Note: Stats courtesy of PGATour.com.