US Open: Rory McIlroy gets off to fast start as Winged Foot fails to bite back

Northern Irishman shoots 67 as field takes advantage of favourable set-up

Thursday, 17th September 2020, 10:44 pm
Updated Friday, 18th September 2020, 7:31 am
Rory McIlroy lines up a putt on the first green during the first round of the US Open. Picture: John Minchillo/AP
Rory McIlroy lines up a putt on the first green during the first round of the US Open. Picture: John Minchillo/AP

Perhaps the USGA have become big softies. This isn’t what we’ve come to expect from the US Open. And certainly not at Winged Foot. Putts were dropping everywhere and there seemed to be more hole outs from fairways than we see week in, week out in regular tour events. Fourteen years after Colin Montgomerie was the only player to break par in the first round and just 12 in total achieved that feat over four circuits at the Mamaroneck course, 21 players ended day one of the event’s 120th staging in red figures.

Justin Thomas, the world No 3, led the way with a five-under 65 - the lowest round recorded in this event at Winged Foot - closely followed by Patrick Reed, Thomas Pieters and Matthew Wolff on 66. Rory McIlroy is on 67 along with Lee Westwood and Louis Oosthuizen.

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McIlroy’s effort came two days after he’d talked about looking for a fast start in his bid to get back in the major mix, having found himself playing catch up time and time again during a six-year drought in the game’s showpiece events.

It was job done by the Northern Irishman, who found his stride straight away by rolling in a 20-footer for a birdie at the short tenth, where he started, for the first of three 2s on his card.

All in all, it was polished performance, his only two slight blips being a couple of three-putts, the second leaving him having to settle for a par after driving the green at the sixth.

Bearing in mind he had been a combined 16-over in the first round in his last eight major starts compared to 23-under for the remaining 54 holes, this definitely put a spring in the four-time major winner’s step.

“Maybe I’ve overthought it at times,” admitted McIlroy of his recent failure to come fast out of the blocks. “I just went out today and just took what was given to me, was a little more relaxed and played really nicely.

“I think at a US Open if you can get off to a good start, you’re not chasing as much. And when you chase on US Open golf courses, that’s when you can start to make mistakes and compound your errors.”

It’s his best start in this event since claiming his breakthrough win in it at Congressional in 2011. “It gives me a little more confidence in my game, not guiding it as much, really being able to free-flow and make good, committed swings. Hopefully that sets me up to do that over the next few days,” he added.

All the talk in the build up to the season’s second major had been about Winged Foot, where Australian Geoff Ogilvy won that event in 2006 with a five-over-par total, of being a beast.

It still might be before we are done this week, but for day one the USGA had taken an inch off the top of the rough, watered the greens and placed some of the holes in favourable positions.

Taking advantage of all that, former US PGA champion Thomas carded six birdies, including one to finish as he rolled in a curling downhiller from 24 feet.

“It was a good day for me from the start,” said the 27-year-old. “It’s one of the best rounds I’ve played in a while tee to green. I made sure all of my misses were in the right spot, and that’s what you have to do at a US Open.”

Playing in the same group as Thomas, three-time winner Tiger Woods had a day like a fiddler’s elbow - up and down all the time - as he had to settle for a 73. After a sluggish start, he’d built up a good head of steam with three birdies in a row around the turn only to drop three shots in the last two holes.

“It was a bit of ebb and flow,” admitted the 15-time major winner afterwards. “It seemed like I wasn’t getting anything out of my round early on when most of my drives on the front nine landed in the fairway and ended up in bad spots.

“It flipped when I made a bunch of putts in the middle of the round, but I did not finish off the round like I needed to.”

One of the most experienced US Open campaigners in the field, he added: “The golf course is there to be had. They gave us a lot of opportunities with the hole locations. Obviously they could have made it a lot more difficult if they wanted to, but I

thought it was very fair.”

Reed, the 2018 Masters champion and wearing red, white and blue in his national Open, sparked his strong start with a hole-in-one at the 165-yard seventh, where fellow American Will Zalatoris matched the feat later in the day.

“I definitely scrambled out there,” said Reed of his general play. “You know you are going to go through spells this week where you are not hitting it well and I managed to limit my mistakes today with my chipping and putting.”

Thomas, who has under-achieved since earning a deserved wildcard for the 2016 at Hazeltine, matched Reed’s effort by covering the last 11 holes in a splendid four-under.

“I drove it really nicely and I had some really deep ones, so left myself some really short wedges into long par-4s, which helps,” said the big-hitting Belgian.

Others to get off to promising starts included 2017 Aberdeen Standard Investments Scottish Open champion Rafa Cabrera Bello (68) and fellow Spaniard Jon Rahm (69).

World No 1 Dustin Johnson struggled to a 73, one less than defending champion Gary Woodland, while US PGA winner Collin Morikawa could only manage a 76.

Despite starting birdie-birdie, Open champion Shane Lowry signed for the same score while career grand slam-seeking Phil Mickelson was all over the shop as he slumped to a disastrous 79.

Former Open champion Jordan Spieth’s struggles also continued in a topsy-turvy 73.

“There’s a lot that’s off,” said the American after his latest mix bag of good and bad. “But I’ll grind it out. I don’t ever give up. I have no reason to. I’m here.”

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