Champion Johnson leads at sunny Pebble Beach

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By John Reger

PEBBLE BEACH, California (Reuters) - Title holder Dustin Johnson made the most of benign, sunny conditions to shoot an eight-under 64 and take a one-stroke lead after the first round of the Pebble Beach National Pro-Am on Thursday.

Johnson, who won last year's tournament by default after the fourth round was washed out by heavy rain, tore up Pebble Beach Golf Links' back nine with five consecutive birdies to lead fellow American J.B. Holmes and K.J. Choi of South Korea.

"Ever since the first time I came here I've really liked this golf course," Johnson told reporters. "The way it sets up to my eye. This is a special place. It's so beautiful out here."

American Charley Hoffman, who played the par-70 Monterey Peninsula Country Club's Shore Course, is two shots back on six-under, while former world number one David Duval is among a group of 12 three adrift.

Johnson was joined by Holmes and Choi on Pebble Beach's links course, usually considered the easiest of the three in rotation which also include the Spyglass Hill course.

The gentle conditions and officials' decision to allow players to lift, clean and place resulted in aggressive hitting and low scores.

"Every time you get good weather out here, especially with the greens being this soft and being able to lift, clean and place it in the fairway you can shoot a good number here," Johnson said.

The in-form American, who finished joint third with Holmes behind compatriot Steve Stricker at the Northern Trust Open that finished Sunday, mixed four birdies with two bogeys on the front nine, before exploding on the par-five 14th.

The big-hitting American birdied after nearly reaching the green in two, picked up two more on the next two holes with putts under 10 feet, then another on the par-three 17th after landing his tee-shot seven feet from the cup.

Johnson then capped the streak with his fifth birdie on the par-five 18th, after reaching the green in two.

Holmes, a two-time tour winner, also used length to his advantage, notching birdies on three of the four par-fives on the way to a seven-under 65.

The 27-year-old was given a boost with an eagle on the par-four eighth, after his approach shot using an eight-iron from 174 yards rolled into the cup.

"That's one of the rare occasions where you make one and you actually hit it perfect," Holmes said. "I hit it right where I was aiming. The ball cut exactly like I wanted."

(Editing by Ian Ransom)