McIlroy makes flying start as Winged Foot shows its soft side
World No 4 has best opening to a major since US PGA win Thomas and Reed set pace on unusually benign first day
Rory McIlroy demanded a quick getaway and so he delivered. He is used to being further adrift than the two strokes he lies behind Justin Thomas, and his many admirers might spot thrilling significance in his three-under beginning to the 120th US Open at Winged Foot.
The previous three times the Northern Irishman has shot an opening 67 or better in a major, he has gone on to win. Put simply, McIlroy has not been better placed after the first day in six years. And that just happens to go back to the 31-year-old’s last major title at the 2014 USPGA Championship.
Lee Westwood, the remarkable veteran, matched McIlroy in the afternoon – as did the South African Louis Oosthuzen – and, naturally, the Englishman’s own fans will be enthralled by their man once again threatening to break his duck on the biggest stage.
However, the Stars and Stripes still flutter proudly as they look for their 10th successive major win on US soil with Thomas leading the way on five under. Patrick Reed, Matt Wolff and Belgian Thomas Peters are a shot back after all shooting 66 on a day when Winged Foot did anything but bare its fangs. All those predictions of calamity were perhaps premature. As McIlroy, a perennial slow starter in the majors, highlighted.
Is the “nappy factor” in play? Is McIlroy getting the renowned bounce that so many new golfing fathers have received in the weeks after their birth of their first child. Of course, that cannot be quantified and perhaps should not begin to be analysed until McIlroy falls into a spot of bother and his psyche is tested at the infamous layout. In truth, this was largely a stress-free experience for Poppy’s father.
Granted, the AW Tillinghast masterpiece was as benign as any of the 144-man field could have hoped, with barely a breeze, generous pins and receptive greens. But it was still Winged Foot, it was still a monster, albeit one in an extremely good mood. Dustin Johnson, the world No1, could manage only 73 and Phil Mickelson, who came so close at Winged Foot in 2006, shot 79.
Thomas’s 65 bettered the previous lowest first-round US Open at Winged Foot by three strokes and that emphasised that it was a day to make hay rather than get buried in the thick rough. The drama came from golfing excellence instead of agronomic maleficence.
Reed, dressed in the colour of his self-appointed standing as Captain America, made a hole-in-one on the seventh when hitting a “90 per cent” nine iron 166 yards, with one hop and into the cup. Reed was characteristically modest about a round containing every number from one to six with the 2018 Masters champion implying the test was challenging only to the inferior.
“I love hard courses,” he said. “This separates the top golfers from the rest of the field. It also separates the guys that can use creativity and can handle adversity.”
Adversity? The worst is yet to come. Thomas expects it to get tougher and for the US Golf Association to revert to type and ensure the greens are firm and the pins tucked away. “The greens are very soft – I thought they’d be firmer,” Thomas said. “But I also understood that they need to err on this side so they can get them how they want this weekend.”
Essentially The Foot – as the members call it – was cushioned for the first morning and will surely soon be reinforced and directed at the participants’ nether regions. McIlroy is also ready, with shots in the bank after capitalising on the inviting conditions.
He started on the 10th with a 20-footer for birdie and from there his putter obliged, although there was an annoying three-putt on the sixth (his 15th) after driving the green on the par-four 329-yarder. His driver was behaving, as well, and this was notable as he had been suffering of late with only one topten finish in the nine events since the sport resumed in June, one of the worst runs of his PGA Tour career. Still, McIlroy did not seem too impressed.
“I definitely feel like I could have sneaked another two or three out there,” he said. “There was the three-putts and a couple of other good chances I let slip by. But at the same time, 67 here is always going to be a good score.”
Justin Rose was rather more upbeat about his playing partner’s form. “Rory made it look relatively easy,” the 2013 US Open said, following his own 73. “But they will crank it up.”
So chaos is still in the forecast, although Tiger Woods must believe he has already had his fair share. The 44-year-old parred the first three holes - and then parred only three more in the remaining 15 holes.
Woods picked up five birdies, but also six bogeys and a doublebogey. The final blemish came on the 18th when he inexplicably duffed a pitch. “I did not finish off the round like I needed to,” he said four times in post-match press conference. “The course is there to be had,” he added. “But I don’t see any reason why it won’t get harder. We have a long way to go. This is a marathon of a tournament and here’s a lot of different things that can go on.”
Different strokes: Justin Thomas and Tiger Woods (right) ponder their fortunes, while Rory McIlroy (below) plays on the 11th