MAMARONECK – The gnarly rough was a constant source of aggravation for the wayward and polished green complexes demanded full attention, but there was no carnage at the U.S. Open.
Winged Foot played fair.
Justin Thomas took full advantage of a surprisingly gettable West Course on Thursday, carding six birdies and one bogey to grab the first-round lead with a 5-under 65. It’s the lowest round ever recorded on the storied West Course in a U.S. Open.
During the buildup, there wasn’t a single conversation about records falling.
“Yeah, 65 is fun no matter where you play, especially at Winged Foot,” Thomas said. “I was in a really good frame of mind and I was focused. … It’s one of those rounds where it’s just kind of like, next thing you know, you make the putt on 18 and you’re done for the day.”
Fuzzy Zoeller had the record here in U.S. Open play, shooting a 66 in the second round of the 1984 championship. Patrick Reed, Thomas Pieters and Matthew Wolff matched that number and are tied for second.
In all, 21 players got into the red on Thursday.
Rory McIlroy, Lee Westwood and Louis Oosthuizen were next at 3-under followed by six other players at 2-under.
Par simply wasn’t good enough on Day 1.
Colin Montgomerie was the lone player to break par in the opening round when the U.S. Open was last here in 2006, but the game has changed.
“You know, everybody drives the ball so well now,” Westwood said. “How long are we going to go, how much are we going to keep extending golf courses? I’m 47 years of age. I bet, if you look at my driving stats today, I probably averaged 315 yards, maybe longer.
“It’s very difficult to, say, pro-proof a golf course. We’re good, and we hit it straight generally. We’re going to shoot low scores in certain conditions.”
Reed did take a double on the fifth hole, but rebounded with a quick birdie at the sixth and found real momentum with a hole-in-one at the seventh by dialing 9-iron down just a hair from 166 yards.
It hopped once and disappeared.
“We couldn’t see how many hops it took, but it went in,” he said. “Of course I was excited about it, but really I knew from that point that, ‘Hey, you need to settle, get ready for the next hole.’ Around here, at Winged Foot, you have to pay attention because you hit one poor golf shot, a lot of things can happen.”
It was the fifth hole-in-one during a U.S. Open at Winged Foot. The sixth came after lunch when Will Zalatoris holed out at the seventh.
Aside from the hospitality of the putting surfaces, there were no surprises inside the ropes.
“No,” said Thomas, who’s looking for a second major championship to back up his win at the 2017 PGA Championship. “The greens are very soft. I thought they’d be a little firmer, but I also understand they need to err on this side so they can get them how they want this weekend. We had soft conditions this morning, a little overcast. The wind wasn’t really blowing very much. So it was good scoring conditions. In the morning, it’s usually softer anyway.”
The 27-year-old hit nine fairways. He found 14 greens and needed just 28 putts.
“It’s still Winged Foot,” Thomas added. “You’ve still got to hit the shots. That kind of was my game plan going into the week is that, yeah, I need to respect the course, but if I’m driving it well and playing well, I do need to try to make some birdies, and that’s exactly what we did today.”
Outside the ropes, the hum of generators replaced the roar of the crowd. Spectators will not be part of this championship due to the pandemic, but several Winged Foot neighbors climbed makeshift grandstands to watch the live action from their backyards.
None of the contenders gloated.
The greens got a quick soak before the round. The pins were largely accessible to a controlled shot.
History might still repeat itself.
“I mean, the greens are still pretty receptive,” McIlroy said. “I think they can get a little firmer as the week goes on. I don’t think the greens need to get any faster with how slopey they are, but they can certainly get them a touch firmer.
“I wouldn’t call it scorable by any stretch of the imagination. There’s a couple of guys that went a little lower than maybe was expected, but it’s not as if the rest of the field are finding it that easy.”
Tiger Woods played the last six holes in 4-over. He then signed for a disappointing 73, knowing it’s not likely to get any easier.
“I thought the golf course was set up fantastic,” he said. “What they did with the hole locations was very fair today. It gave us an opportunity to make some birdies, and you look at most of the scores, and the guys took advantage of it. … I don’t see any reason why it won’t get harder and get more difficult.”
Phil Mickelson was in trouble up to his calves most of the day, conjuring up images of his final-round collapse in 2006. The six-time U.S. Open runner-up didn’t even hit a fairway until the ninth hole.
“I’m so sick of this,” he said after watching the approach land on the adjacent first tee.
Mickelson shot a humbling 9-over 79, besting only two players in the field.
“I drove it poorly and I putted poorly,” he said. “The course couldn’t be set up any better. It’s a spectacular golf course, great design, awesome setup, and I thought it was a good opportunity to score low today. I just played terrible.”
Mike Dougherty covers golf for The Journal News/lohud. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter @hoopsmbd and @lohudgolf.
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