World No 1 Dustin Johnson plays an approach to the 14th hole during the first round of the Wells Fargo Championship on Thursday. Photo: Streeter Lecka, AFP

WILMINGTON, North Carolina – Francesco Molinari chipped in for birdie at the final hole to take the early lead with a 6-under-par 66 in the first round at the Wells Fargo Championship on Thursday.

Italian Molinari headed Swede Alex Noren by one stroke with half the field back in the clubhouse, while Dustin Johnson made a tidy return to action with a 2-under 70 at Eagle Point.

It was Johnson’s first competitive round since he slipped down stairs and badly bruised his back on the eve of the Masters four weeks ago.

“I felt good physically, no issues,” World No 1 Johnson told reporters. “I just need to get some more 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 (over) the next few days, I’ll be right there on Sunday.”

Many players approached the first round apprehensively on a course few had played before this week.

But the morning scores in a moderate wind showed it was not overly demanding, and nobody was more pleased than Molinari, who recovered from an early bogey to surge ahead.

“It’s a great track, not the longest, but especially in the breeze, you need to hit the ball in the right spot on the greens,” he said.

“Just a good, solid round. I hit a lot of good shots, gave myself a lot of chances. I missed some makeable ones, but made a couple from off the green, so great day.”

Francesco Molinari hits his second shot on the sixth hole during round one of the Wells Fargo Championship. Photo: Jared C. Tilton, AFP

His first hole-out came at the fifth, from 25 yards, while he also chipped in from 25 feet at the last.

Molinari is seeking his first PGA Tour victory, after winning four times on the European Tour, including the 2010 WGC-HSBC Champions in Shanghai.

Second-placed Noren played with the precision befitting a World No 12.

“I made a few longer birdie putts, which I haven’t done maybe lately in tournaments,” he said.

Noren is juggling his time between playing in the US and Europe, something he wants to continue. “I’ve got a little kid at home. They like it in Sweden, and we’ll see how it goes.”

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