The four-time major champion made as many double bogeys — three, in his first 10 holes — as birdies en route to shooting 10-over 80 at Shinnecock Hills Golf Club.
His highest score in 29 Open rounds left McIlroy nearly speechless. He declined to speak to the media afterwards, stopping only to chat with Irishman Shane Lowry, who was still warming up for his afternoon tee time.
When one enterprising reporter followed McIlroy into the player’s locker room and asked him for a word, McIlroy snapped: “What do you want me to say? I shot 80. I’m disappointed.”
Asked a day earlier if he thought he should be tested or punished at the US Open, McIlroy responded, “Tested, but punished if you hit a bad shot.”
He took a beating for his miscues yesterday, which were many. Gusting winds and fast greens confounded players, and restored respect for par after last year’s Open turned into a birdie barrage.
This time, fans were left cheering for bogeys.
It was a day for survival, and McIlroy likely shot himself out of the tournament early. Starting on the 10th hole, he made his first bogey from a greenside bunker at the par-three 11th and his first double bogey one hole later when he sprayed his tee shot into the right rough.
It was an unsettling start, but not as bad as it was for Jordan Spieth, who made a one-putt triple-bogey six at 11 without taking a penalty stroke.
Tee shots straying from the fairway would become a disconcerting trend for McIlroy. He found the fairway on just half his tee shots and hit just five greens in regulation.
His drive at 14 drifted right into the thick stuff, or what former European Ryder Cup star and TV commentator Ken Brown described as “in the lap of the Gods”.
Five spotters tried to find it in the hay. Just as they invited a spectator to come under the ropes and help, the ball was discovered.
McIlroy didn’t need any help finding his next shot: He hacked at it with a sand wedge and advanced the ball 6ft. Another double bogey. And so it went.
“It’s hard to believe he could be 10 over after 11 holes on any golf course,” said Fox TV analyst Paul Azinger. “But if there’s one course where it could happen, this is it.”
McIlroy has now shot 77, 78, and 80 in the opening round of the last three US Opens. He still beat Englishman Scott Gregory, who signed for 92, the first round shot in the 90s at an Open since Felix Casas in 2002.
“Everyone has bad days,” said Gregory. “I qualified last week so I can’t be that bad.”
McIlroy wasn’t alone in his misery. Grouped with Americans Phil Mickelson (77) and Spieth (78), the threesome combined to shoot 25-over par.
Englishman Justin Rose, who carded a one-over 71, sat in a comfy chair on a TV set being interviewed when he began to realise just how respectable a score he’d posted.
“I’m sitting here watching Phil, Jordan, and Rory and it makes my round feel all that much better,” said Rose, the 2013 champion.
Graeme McDowell — eight over through 12 — and Lowry — four over through 10 — weren’t faring much better than McIlroy in the afternoon.
Americans Dustin Johnson and Russell Henley shared the lead at two under among players still on the course with afternoon tee times, and Tiger Woods was three over through his first nine after opening with a triple bogey.
Englishman Ian Poulter and American Scott Piercy shared the clubhouse lead at one-under 69, and were the only two golfers to break par in the morning wave compared to 14 players who failed to break 80.
Poulter made his US Open debut in 2004, the last time Shinnecock Hills was the host site, and conceded that he didn’t have fond memories of the experience.
“I haven’t enjoyed very many, to be honest,” he said. “Feels like you’re pulling teeth every single hole you play. How I’ve got any left, I don’t really know.”
Both Poulter and Piercy credited a change in mental approach for their success.
For Poulter, it was simply taking a more carefree approach, and accepting that the setup would bring a dose of pain. “I’m here to enjoy my golf this week, to play freely,” he said.
“It’s difficult for everyone. Today is just a good day and I’ve got three tough days left.”
Piercy lowered his expectations after walking off the course having lost five balls in his first four holes during his Wednesday practice round. He studied his swing from his Instagram posts and found something that worked.
“You’ve got to ride the wave, and you’ve got to figure out how when you’re at the bottom of the wave, how to get back to the top,” said Piercy.
Wise words for McIlroy and others who got “Shinnecocked” on Thursday.