By Mark Lamport-Stokes

PACIFIC PALISADES, California (Reuters) - American Jonathan Byrd relied on accurate iron play in strong gusting winds to help him surge into an early one-shot lead in the Northern Trust Open first round on Thursday.

Apprehensive about the weather after waking up in the morning and looking outside, Byrd was thankful most of the holes at Riviera Country Club played downwind as he fired a three-under-par 68.

Though he bogeyed his final hole, the tricky par-four 18th, he ended his round a stroke in front of compatriot Brendan Steele and South Korean K.J. Choi.

World number one Luke Donald, making his first start on the 2012 PGA Tour, opened with a 70 to finish level with fellow Briton Justin Rose, big-hitting American Bubba Watson and Canadian David Hearn.

Byrd, a three-times winner on the U.S. circuit, was delighted to card five birdies and just two bogeys as winds gusted up to 35 mph through the Santa Monica Canyon.

"We rented a house this week, and we're staying up on a bluff about five miles away," the 34-year-old told reporters.

"I got out of bed this morning and walked outside, and I was pretty anxious about playing this golf course today because it was howling on top of that bluff. And it whipped all day.

"But once we got out there, the greens were a little softer than I thought they'd be. I just kept hitting good iron shots, so I kind of stayed on the aggressive."


"That's a hole I've kind of struggled with (in the past) ... and I hit a great eight-iron in there," he said. "It wasn't that hard a shot but I hit it right over the hole, it hit a slope, came down and it lipped out about a foot from the hole."

Choi, an eight-times champion on the PGA Tour, was also relieved to shoot a sub-par round in the tricky conditions.

"I wake in the morning at 4:30, and outside the window there were palm trees like this," he said, waving his hand vigorously from side to side. "Very, very difficult on the golf course.

"I like playing in the wind," Choi said through an interpreter after mixing three birdies with a lone bogey. "In Dallas where I live, you get a lot of wind there.

"But what makes Riviera Country Club so difficult is the targets are very small."

American world number 11 Phil Mickelson, champion here in 2008 and 2009 and fresh from victory at the Pebble Beach National Pro-Am on Sunday, was among the late starters.

(Reporting by Mark Lamport-Stokes; Editing by Frank Pingue)