SOUTHAMPTON, N.Y. — There’s a palpable sense of boyish excitement among players walking toward the first tee at the Masters, as if they’re eager to step back into the setting of their childhood dreams. You don’t see that much at a U.S. Open, which is generally more the stuff of adult nightmares. And certainly not at Shinnecock Hills on a day when flags by the iconic clubhouse were already whipping in the early light. In Thursday’s first round, players walked to the tee with the resigned air of condemned men making their way to the gallows.
They knew what awaited, that the wind strafing a treeless course would leave no hiding place. And it didn’t, even for the finest players in the game. The marquee grouping of Phil Mickelson, Jordan Spieth and Rory McIlroy combined to shoot 25-over-par, which was poor even by the standards of a battered field that was averaging almost 77 strokes late in the afternoon.
“Very difficult,” Spieth said flatly after signing for a 78.
“Really tough,” said the defending champion Brooks Koepka, who shot 75.
Misery loves company. Tiger Woods’ scorecard read more like a Wendy’s order, with two doubles and a triple on his way to a woeful +8 after 16 holes.
McIlroy shot 80, Jason Day a 79. Bubba Watson a 77. And then there’s Scott Gregory, the former British Amateur winner who qualified only to shoot 92 Thursday morning. To his credit, and unlike some of his more celebrated fellow players, Gregory answered questions from the press afterward.
Elite golfers need to rationalize the bad days. It’s a prerequisite to steeling oneself for renewed battle the following day. There were signs of that as bloodied Tour pros nursed their wounds.
“There were certainly some dicey pins but at the same time there were guys that shot under par. So I could have played better,” Spieth said.
“Some greens are a little faster than others. Just a little inconsistent on the greens,” Koepka said. “Some of the pin locations were brutal.”
Not everyone was down on the pins.
“The setup was fine. I didn’t think there was a hole that was setup unfair or anything like that. I feel like the pin placements were fine,” said Masters champion Patrick Reed after his 73. “You had to hit quality golf shots.”
Open veterans know that a lousy Thursday doesn’t preclude a glorious Sunday. In 1986, Raymond Floyd hit only five greens and shot 75 in the first round but went on to win. Mickelson knows that too. He didn’t speak with the media after his 77, but was overheard telling friends, “Just shoot under par tomorrow and I’m right in it. It’s the same for everyone.”
“You can shoot whatever, 5-over today, and shoot 1-under tomorrow and be just fine going into the weekend,” he said. ”Try not to shoot yourself out of it.”
Everyone in the field knows that the U.S. Open is a live autopsy, designed to expose every frailty a man has. That’s why even those at the cheerful end of the leaderboard don’t seem to be enjoying matters.
“Through most of the U.S. Opens I haven’t enjoyed very many to be honest,” said Ian Poulter, who shot a 1-under 69. “They’re difficult. They’re hot. They’re stressful. Feels like you’re pulling teeth every single hole you play. How I’ve got any left I don’t really know.”
That might account for the Englishman’s record in America’s national Open: his best finish is T-12 a dozen years ago at Winged Foot.
His countryman Justin Rose won this title in 2013 at Merion.
“Happy it’s over,” he said after an opening 71.
With that he probably spoke for all 156 combatants in the field. What he said next hinted at a determined stoicism, a trait clearly not shared by the battered and the bruised who staggered straight to the parking lot.
“I’m aware of the big picture of this tournament and I think I knew what today was all about,” Rose said, sounding just like a man who knows many an Open champion survived a first-round bloodbath. “It was about hanging in there. Today is about eliminating a bad round. It’s turned into a really positive start.”