Pillow fight at Winged Foot as pros make light work in good conditions

Pillow fight at Winged Foot as pros make light work in good conditions

Rory McIlroy plays his shot from the second tee during the first round of the US Open Golf Championship Picture: AP Photo/John Minchillo

The last time the U.S. Open came to Winged Foot in 2006, one player broke par in the opening round – and just barely at that as Colin Montgomerie shot 1-under 69.

Round 2 was the same story, this time Steve Stricker shooting the lone red 69. Round 3, two shot 69 (Phil Mickelson and Ryuji Imada). Round 4, four shot 69 (Nick O’Hern, Jeff Sluman, Paul Casey and David Howell).

That’s it. Eight red numbers total – all 69s – the entire week. That’s Winged Foot.

Thursday was not exactly the first-round birdie-fest of a Bob Hope Desert Classic, but it sure didn’t seem like the U.S. Open at Winged Foot that was advertised. Twenty-one players broke 70. Thirteen of them were better than any round shot in 2006. Justin Thomas’ 5-under 65 tied the best tournament round ever shot on the West Course.

We were promised the toughest test in golf and Thursday we got a pillow fight. Comfortable temperatures, soft greens, no wind and reasonable pins was no match for elite golfers armed with modern technology.

“You know, everybody drives the ball so well now that … how much are we going to keep extending golf courses?” asked Lee Westwood, who shot 3-under 67 in his first U.S. Open start in three years. “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.” Nobody expects it to get any easier the rest of the week, as the forecast calls for cooler, breezier and firmer conditions the rest of the way. Thus making hay on Thursday was a very big deal. That’s good news for Rory McIlroy, who’s opening 67 was his best in the first round of a U.S. Open since he won in 2011 after a starting 65. Despite a pair of three-putts, he left himself in prime position to solve his six-year major drought.

“I think at a U.S. Open, if you can get off to a good start, you're not chasing as much,” McIlroy said of a number that left him tied for fifth with Westwood and Louis Oosthuizen. “And when you chase on U.S. Open golf courses, that's when you can start to make mistakes and compound your errors. To have that sort of cushion – to be a little bit more relaxed about your play, not take on too much, be able to still play conservative golf – I think that's important here.” 

Of the world’s top 10 golfers in the field, only No. 1 Dustin Johnson (3-over 73) and reigning PGA champion Collin Morikawa (76) put themselves in the uncomfortable position of chasing. Xander Schauffele (68), Jon Rahm (69), Bryson DeChambeau (69) and Webb Simpson (71) each got off to strong enough starts to figure in the whatever plot develops.

Justin Thomas set the early bar with a nearly flawless round, but there is no room for complacency. In the threesome directly behind at 4-under 66 is 2018 Masters champion Patrick Reed, who ignited his day with an ace on the seventh hole after an early double. Tied with Reed in second is Belgium’s Thomas Pieters and rising star Matthew Wolff, who is trying to match Morikawa’s quick breakthrough in August at Harding Park.

“It's still an unbelievable thing that Collin did win the PGA,” said Wolff, who turned pro at the same time last summer. “I'm really happy for him, but it gives me the confidence to know I can come out here and do the same thing.” Pieters left Royal Portrush last summer in the gloomiest state of his career, dropping to 109th in the world. But a win immediately after in the Czech Masters rejuvenated his flagging game and after a nearly six-month COVID break he quickly found his form in two warmup events in Wales including a tied for third at the Celtic Classic.

“So I kind of knocked the rust off and came here with, yeah, a bit of confidence because I'm hitting it well,” Pieters said. “I’ve just got to put down a good score, and I did today.” Westwood refused to travel to the US due to COVID concerns in August for a WGC event and the PGA Championship, but his own form has steadily improved in Europe including a strong finish in Valderrama two weeks ago when he finally got the nerve to leave the UK. He said feedback from his peers convinced him to take the flight to New York for the U.S. Open, and he took full advantage Thursday.

“Obviously, as the golf course firms out and a little bit of wind picks up, which is likely, and the pin positions obviously get tougher, it won't yield as many low scores,” Westwood said. “Today was obviously the day to get off to a decent start and get some credit.” While McIlroy’s start carried the banner, the rest of his compatriots didn’t fare so well under the conditions. Shane Lowry opened with consecutive birdies to make some early noise and them promptly lost his way with five bogeys on the next six holes. He shot 6-over 78 to match the morning mark of Northern Ireland’s Graeme McDowell.

Amateur champion James Sugrue got sideways from the start en route to a 78 that only beat three players in the field – one of them Mickelson (79). Westwood, who played with Sugrue, saw promise in his game despite the struggles.

“He's got nice game; he just makes mistakes that an amateur would make at a U.S. Open,” Westwood said. “Somebody playing in their first U.S. Open, it’s the kind of mistakes we all make. Threw a few away on the greens three-putting and missed a few in the wrong spots. These kind of tournaments will get you, and they come as a shock to you when you've not played them before. He's obviously got a very bright future.” Westwood even lobbied for Sugrue to get an 11th-hour invitation to play in next week’s Dubai Duty Free Irish Open at Galgorm Castle.

“He's the British amateur champion from Ireland, and he's not got an invite to the Irish Open,” Westwood said. “Little bit shocked at that. Maybe should be a late one in there.”

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