At the end of the longest of U.S. Open days that nearly got away from him, Rory McIlroy left Torrey Pines with a little unexpected bounce in his step.
After burying a 22-foot par-saving putt from the fringe in the light of the scoreboard and hustling to get a tee ball from the group off 18 before the horn blew to suspend play, McIlroy slammed in an 8-footer for birdie on the last to finish 1-under par with a 70 in Thursday’s first round.
“Better putting in the dark,” he shouted as he walked off the green and raised a fist to the fans who had stuck around to the end of the day that started with a 90-minute delay because of the early morning fog off the Pacific Ocean.
“Yeah, it was really nice. The birdie is awesome,” McIlroy said of the finish that got him back into red figures after leaking away his two-under start with bogeys at 13 and 16.
“I mean, that putt was pretty. I was sort of like, I think it's straight, I'll hit it straight and we'll see. But, yeah, it was nice to get in, get an extra hour of sleep tonight and it was a bonus to birdie in as well.”
Louis Oosthuizen, the former Open champ and a runner-up at the PGA Championship last month, made a run up the leaderboard to catch morning pace-setter Russell Henley at 4-under before his round was suspended by darkness through 16 holes.
“I played nicely, putted nicely and hopefully just keep the momentum going,” Oosthuizen said before leaving to go to bed to face an early restart.
Fellow Open champion Francesco Molinari, who withdrew before the PGA with back issues, joined bogey-free Rafa Cabrera-Bello with 3-under-par 68s to share third place. The stacked crowd at 2-under 69 includes four-time major winner Brooks Koepka and reigning Masters champion Hideki Matsuyama as well as the two highest-ranked players in the world without a major – Jon Rahm and Xander Schauffele.
“Pretty pleased. Not the best, but I'll definitely take it,” said Koepka.
“I'm going to say, any time in a U.S. Open you're under par it's a great start and today was just that,” said Rahm, who came into the tournament as the favorite. “It was a bit of up-and-down start, a lot of birdies and bogeys, and that's what happens at a golf course like this. … Overall, really solid, I feel like it got better as the day went on, which is kind of what you want. So hopefully tomorrow I can keep this good game going.”
In all, 23 players were under par when play was suspended for the day. That roster seemed unlikely to include McIlroy, who was 2-under through 12 holes before he started to struggle and seemed headed to over par when he got himself into trouble on 17.
Justin Rose putted out first on 17 and raced to the 18th tee to hit his drive before the horn blew. His ball bounded down the fairway past Sergio Garcia in the group ahead, who raised his arms in protest. But the players deemed getting some extra sleep with a quick overnight turnaround to finishing up on fresher greens in the morning.
“It’s huge,” said Rahm, who scrambled to finish on the opposite side as McIlroy. “I mean, even 20 minutes difference on sleep, when you're going from late to early, I mean, it is less than a 12-hour turn around and you got to include the warm-up, the cool downs. Sometimes you wish you had a couple extra minutes and by finishing today we get that. So it's a big difference.”
McIlroy got off to a solid start, making birdie on the difficult first hole and chipping in for another birdie on No. 7. But he started missing some short putts including a par try on 10 and a close birdie chance on 11. A birdie on the difficult 12th got him back to 2-under, but he pulled his drive into trouble on the par-5 13th, extending the issues on the scoring holes that cost him last month at the PGA Championship. Another bogey from the greenside bunker on 16 had him heading for another desultory first-round finish before he drained those two unlikely putts to finish his day.
“I got off to a really good start with a birdie at the first – I played well, I played solid,” he said. “I didn't miss a green until the seventh hole and I was able to chip that in, which was a bonus. But that's the key around here, you can get away with some wayward shots off the tee, and I did today. But I was able to recover well and hit greens. And if you can just keep hitting greens out here that's the name of the game and I did that well.”
Shane Lowry finished early with a 1-over 72 despite a four-putt triple bogey on the fourth hole and left pleased that he still is within reach of the leaders with conditions only likely to get tougher in the U.S. Open.
McIlroy, sitting tied 11th just three off the lead, believes he’s right there with the way he’s playing and doesn’t need to shake up his gameplan.
“Everything felt pretty good. I think as the course gets firmer we're just going to really have to dial in,” he said. “So just really being aware of how firm the course is getting, just have to really concentrate on that.”
Along with Henley at the top, the biggest surprise on the leaderboard is qualifier Hayden Buckley, a Korn Ferry Tour player who made only one bogey in shooting 2-under 69.
“I didn't finish well on 18, but just found a way to keep it in play and keep it in front of me and just had a lot of good looks,” said Buckley. “My one bogey is a three-putt from 20 feet, of all things. So yeah, I really grinded it out and played pretty steady besides that.”