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

The Daily Telegraph - Business - - Sport - By James Cor­ri­gan GOLF COR­RE­SPON­DENT

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

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