U.S. Open back to old self

The London Free Press - - SPORTS -

SOUTHAMPTON, N.Y. — The re­turn to a clas­sic U.S. Open course brought back the kind of scoring that gave this ma­jor its rep­u­ta­tion.

Dustin John­son played some of his best golf Thurs­day and yet the world’s No. 1 player barely beat par in the treach­er­ous wind at Shin­necock Hills. John­son holed a bunker shot for birdie, kept his mis­takes to a min­i­mum and joined Ian Poul­ter, Scott Piercy and Rus­sell Hen­ley at one-un­der-par 69 for a share of the lead.

“You had to fo­cus on ev­ery sin­gle shot you hit — putts, ev­ery­thing,” John­son said. “It was just dif­fi­cult all day.”

No need to tell that to Tiger Woods, Rory McIl­roy, Jor­dan Spi­eth and many of golf’s bests who had their hopes crushed in gusts that made fair­ways look nar­rower and the rough dif­fi­cult to avoid.

In his re­turn to the U.S. Open after two years away, Woods opened a ma­jor with a triple bo­gey for the first time in 15 years. He added back-to-back dou­ble bo­geys on the back nine and stag­gered to a 78.

Spi­eth waited un­til the sec­ond hole to make a triple bo­gey, blast­ing out of a bunker and over the 11th green and then tak­ing three shots to get on the putting sur­face. McIl­roy found trou­ble just about ev­ery­where and shot 80, his high­est first-round score in a ma­jor.

“It was pretty ev­i­dent no­body was mak­ing any birdies in the morn­ing — lots and lots of bo­geys and ‘oth­ers,’ ” Woods said. “My game plan was not to make any ‘oth­ers’ and I made three of them. So didn’t do very well there.”

It was quite a con­trast from last year at Erin Hills in Wis­con­sin, which set a record for the first round by yield­ing 44 rounds un­der par.

Piercy, the last man in the 156man field as an al­ter­nate from qual­i­fy­ing, was so dis­gusted with his game in his fi­nal prac­tice round that he walked off the course. He dropped only two shots, both on par-3s, and was the first to post a 69. Poul­ter also played in the morn­ing, while John­son and Hen­ley played in the af­ter­noon as the wind reached its full strength.

Hen­ley was the only player to reach three-un­der at any point and he promptly gave that back with a dou­ble bo­gey on No. 10.

Ja­son Dufner opened with a 70, and even those at one-over 71 felt as though they put in a hard day’s work, a group that in­cluded Justin Rose and Hen­rik Sten­son.

“It’s a dif­fer­ent kind of en­joy­ment, right?” Rose said. “I en­joy the bat­tle. I en­joy the fight. I en­joy the grind, re­ally. When you get a bit cut up and bruised, it can change pretty quick.”

John­son is com­ing off a six-shot vic­tory last week in the St. Jude Clas­sic and while no one has won the U.S. Open com­ing off a PGA Tour vic­tory the week be­fore, he played as though noth­ing had changed. He holed medium-length putts for birdies, a few nervy, short putts for par and picked up a bonus when his shot from a front bunker on the par-4 eighth rat­tled and rolled into the cup.

Not even John­son was im­mune from mis­takes, how­ever, drop­ping shots on the 12th and 14th holes.

Former PGA cham­pion Rich Beem isn’t in the field, but he helped out John­son by step­ping on his ball in the deep rough next to the sixth fair­way. About 30 peo­ple — TV crews, vol­un­teers, and even Tiger Woods — spent sev­eral min­utes help­ing John­son look for the ball. Beem, who is work­ing for Sky Sports, even­tu­ally stepped on it.

If it had been John­son or his cad­die, that would have been a oneshot penalty. Be­cause it was some­one else, John­son was en­ti­tled to drop it with­out penalty.

John­son chose to hack out to the fair­way in­stead of try­ing to carry the wa­ter and made a bo­gey.

It didn’t take long to fig­ure out what kind of test this was go­ing to be, with the flags atop the grand­stand next to the 18th green flap­ping as the first group teed off. They were crack­ling by the af­ter­noon.

Phil Mick­el­son, need­ing the U.S. Open to com­plete the Grand Slam, played in the fea­ture group­ing with Spi­eth and McIl­roy. They fin­ished a com­bined 25-over par, with Mick­el­son tak­ing honours at 77. Woods quickly joined them. From the mid­dle of the first fair­way, he went long over the green. He chipped once and it came back to his feet. He tried it again with the same re­sult, and then rapped his put­ter up the hill by the hole and missed the putt. He held it to­gether un­til a four-putt on No. 13, the last three of those putts from 6 feet.

“Shoot some­thing in the 60s to­mor­row and I’ll be just fine,” Woods said. “I just think to­day was the tough­est day we’ll have all week. But then again, I think they’re go­ing to let th­ese greens firm out a lit­tle bit. They’ll start to pick up a lit­tle bit of speed, and it will be a good U.S. Open again.”

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