SOUTHAMPTON, NY — Just before high noon under bright and blustery skies, Jordan Spieth stood in the rough, or more specifically, the fescue, right of the fairway on the par-4 4th hole at Shinnecock Hills, glaring down at the ball between his shoes.
“Make a good swing here,” said his trusted caddie, Michael Greller.
Spieth took a lash and made clean contact — too clean. His ball rode the right-to-left breeze, took a hard bounce and settled 15 yards behind the green.
“I didn’t see it coming out like that, dude,” Spieth blurted, banging his wedge off the turf in aggravation.
So it went for most of the 156 players who entered this 118th U.S. Open with aspirations of bringing venerable old Shinnecock to its knees. On Thursday the sun sparkled, the wind whipped and the carnage commenced. When it was over, just four players were under par, 29 players failed to crack 80 and one poor sap shot 92. These guys didn’t see it coming out like this, dude.
Instead, we’ve got an old-school, blood-and-guts U.S. Open, where the greens are glossy, the rough is ruthless and par is king. Your leaders — actually, let’s call them survivors — after 18 holes: Russell Henley, Scott Piercy, Ian Poulter and top-ranked Dustin Johnson, who each shot 1-under 69. Jason Dufner is one back at even par. Justin Rose and Henrik Stenson are part of a seven-man group two behind.
But the real Round 1 winner was the golf course, which was stretched an extra 450 yards since it last hosted this event in 2004. The fairways were also pinched a little tighter late last year after the birdiefest at the U.S. Open at Erin Hills. Combine that with a steady 20 mph breeze that gusted in the 30s and the average score checked in at a robust 76.47. The setup moved close to the edge — but not over it. “There were certainly some dicey pins, but at the same time there was guys that shot under par,” Spieth said.
Johnson, who reclaimed the No. 1 ranking by winning last week in Memphis, has to be the favorite from here. He jarred a bunker shot for birdie on 8 and dropped a 21-foot putt on the treacherous par-3 11th. His power and touch are clicking, and he’ll go right back out for his second round Friday morning.
Henley, a three-time Tour winner who has never cracked the top 10 at a major, missed just one fairway during an impressive afternoon round, but he blew his solo lead with a bogey on 18. Piercy teed off in the first group at 6:45 a.m., the calmest conditions of the day, and made three birdies and two bogeys while finishing up comfortably before lunch. The 39-year-old snuck into the field earlier this week as an alternate after sectional qualifying, and he surprised even himself just one day after storming off the course a few holes into his final practice round.
“I was skanking it, and I lost like five balls in the first four holes. I’m like, ‘I’m outta here.'” Piercy said. “I didn’t really expect this. Just kind of regrouped last night, tried to go back to a couple things that have worked throughout the year. I was able to kind of piece it together again.” Little more than an hour after Piercy came home, Poulter deftly got up-and-down from the sand on 17 and two-putted 18 for his own 69. Poulter nearly lost his PGA Tour status early in 2017, but he’s been rising steadily ever since, capped by a win earlier this year at the Houston Open.
“My game’s good. I feel confident. I feel happy off the golf course, and it makes that a lot easier on the golf course,” Poulter said. “I don’t want to get carried away. This is day one of four extremely tough days, and three bad holes on this golf course can take you home pretty quick.”
Teeing off alongside DJ and Justin Thomas (74) in the afternoon’s glamour grouping, Tiger Woods hit his second shot on No. 1 off the back of the green and took three sloppy shots just to get onto the putting surface en route to a 7. After a bogey on 2, he steadied himself before short-circuiting with a four-putt from 40 feet on 13. He made another double on 14 and staggered home in 78.
“We thought there were probably close to seven to nine birdie-able holes out there. Now, with the wind blowing, that changed dramatically,” Woods said. “So it was pretty evident nobody was making any birdies in the morning. Lots and lots of bogeys and higher in others. My game plan was not to make any ‘others,’ and I made three of them. So didn’t do very well there.”
Spieth matched Woods with 78, his worst-ever score in a major, and like Woods he was derailed by a quick triple — a 6 on the par-3 11th, his second hole of the day. Spieth hit a bump-and-run up the bank that came briefly to a stop on the green before trickling back down to his feet. “Just tried to do a little too much and it kind of bit me. From there it was just kind of a grind,” Spieth said.
Spieth wasn’t even the high man in his threesome. Adding to the misery of the morning’s marquee group, Phil Mickelson hit 13 of 14 fairways but missed half of his greens and finished with a 77. Rory McIlroy, who hits it as long and — most challenging on this day — as high as anyone, missed half of his fairways and might want to get checked for ticks after many lengthy stretches in the knee-high hay. He hit just five greens in regulation and signed for a stunning 80.
Rory wasn’t alone in his suffering. Jason Day, another high-ball hitter, bombed with 79. Other pre-tourney favorites digging an early hole include defending champ Brooks Koepka (75), Hideki Matsuyama (75), Bubba Watson (77) and Jon Rahm (78).
Everyone finished ahead of poor Scott Gregory, the 2016 British amateur champ, who made 10 bogeys, three doubles and two triples and signed for 92, the highest U.S. Open score since 2002.
Maybe we should’ve seen this coming. In its three U.S. Open since 1986, the cut lines at Shinnecock have been +10, +6 and +6. Eighteen holes into this latest edition, a few things are clear: Shinnecock is still plenty sturdy for today’s pros. Control in the wind is paramount. Nerves of steel also won’t hurt. Oh, and McIlroy’s U.S. Open scoring record (16-under 268 in 2011) is undeniably safe. The U.S. Open is back, baby. Whoever hoists that trophy Sunday afternoon will have earned it.