Rory McIlroy fired his lowest opening round in a Major for six years and walked away almost disappointed not to stamp even harder on a vulnerable Winged Foot in New York.
Bidding to end a six-year Major drought, McIlroy opened with a three-under-par 67 to put himself right the mix, taking advantage of receptive greens, light breezes and some generous pin positions to lie just two strokes behind early leader Justin Thomas.
With the USGA lopping an inch off the rough overnight, scoring was surprisingly low as Thomas clipped one stroke off Fuzzy Zoeller’s 1984 US Open low at Winged Foot, carding a five-under 65 to lead by a shot from former Masters champion Patrick Reed, who had a hole-in-one at the seventh, American Matthew Wolff and Belgium’s Thomas Pieters.
McIlroy needed his driving game to be in top form to attack the course and he used it to build the foundation for his round, hitting nine of 14 fairways as he shot his lowest opening round since he began The Open and the US PGA Championships with 66s in 2014 – before going on to win both.
His driving prowess allowed him to hit 15 of 18 greens, and while he was disappointed to three-putt twice – including for par at the 329-yard sixth after a tremendous tee shot to 40 feet – he was pleased to get off to a good start in a Major for only the second time in his last eight starts.
“Hopefully I can keep that going over the next three days,” said McIlroy, who ended the day tied with veteran Lee Westwood. “That’s what you need to do around here, just keep it in the short stuff, and then the greens are still receptive enough where you can give yourself some chances.
Photo by Golffile
“I took a couple of my chances today. It was one of those rounds I felt like could have been a little lower than it was, but at the same time 67 is a really good start.”
The four-time Major winner rolled in a 20-footer for a two at the 10th and a four-footer for another two at the 13th before curling home a right-to-left 23-footer at the 18th to turn in 32.
He then followed a three-putt bogey at the first by hitting a four-iron to six feet at the 231-yard third and was delighted to remain patient and start well.
“First round of a Major you’re always anxious to play well, and maybe I’ve overthought it at times,” McIlroy confessed of his past mistakes. “I just went out today and just took what was given to me a little more relaxed and played really nicely.
“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.
“To have that sort of cushion, to be a little bit more relaxed about your play, not take on too much, be able to still play conservative golf, I think that’s important here.”
The Holywood man won the 2011 US Open by eight strokes on 16-under par but he takes issue with those who believe he can’t grind.
“You know, I still got up and down and had to hack it out of rough and make pars from 60, 70 yards out,” he said of his first Major win. “I can play that game when I need to, and I think it’s easier to play that game when you feel like you’re in control. I feel like most aspects of my game are a little more under control now than they were, say a month ago.”
If McIlroy was impressive, Thomas was sensational as he made six birdies and just one bogey in his 65 while Reed made a double-bogey six at the fifth but birdied the sixth and then aced the 165-yard seventh before picking up three birdies on the back nine.
Tiger Woods erased five bogeys with five birdies to be level with two to play but then bogeyed the 17th and double-bogeyed the 18th for a frustrating 73 as Jon Rahm shot 69 but the world No 1 Dustin Johnson had to settle for a 73.
As for the rest of the Irish, their failure to hit fairways proved costly.
Shane Lowry birdied the first two holes but he would hit just six of 14 fairways and after five bogeys in six holes from the third, he three-putted from 12 feet at the 14th for double-bogey six, before finishing birdie-bogey for a 76.
Graeme McDowell hit just six fairways as he opened with a six-over 76 while Mallow amateur James Sugrue also struggled from the tee, hitting just four fairways as he made eight bogeys in an eight-over 78 as Westwood shot 67 and Bubba Watson a 72.
Graeme McDowell. Photo by Golffile
“I kind of hung in there well the front nine, had it 1-over, birdied 9, hit a great shot on 10 to 12 feet, kind of missed that, and made a bogey with a wedge in my hand on 11, and then just couldn't get it in the fairway after that,” McDowell said. “I missed the 12th fairway, I missed the 14th fairway, I missed the 15th fairway, I missed the 16th fairway, missed the 17th fairway.
“I made the mistakes that you just can't make out here really, which is not getting the ball in play off the tee. I've got a lot of work to do tomorrow.
“Golf course was kind of there for the taking as far as Winged Foot was going to be there for the taking this morning, but like I say, just kind of reset and try and get back out there tomorrow, see if I can't sneak in for the weekend and do a little damage on the weekend.”
As for the conditions, McDowell added: “I think conditions were slightly more benign than I expected. You know, there's still a bit of moisture in the greens. The greens are pretty receptive. But you must drive the ball well, simple as that. You have to be in the fairway off the tee to have a chance, and then if you do that well, there is a score to be had. It is playable-ish if you do drive the ball well.
“There is some length out there, of course, but no, I think the golf course was certainly -- I think it was fair. Certainly can't stand here and blame the golf course in any way, shape or form this morning. It was certainly down to just the fact that I did not drive the ball well, and like I say, I've got a bit of work to do between now and tomorrow, but I'm upbeat about a lot of the things that I'm doing and I've just got to try and keep pushing forward.”
Westwood enjoyed playing with the Cork man and suggested that he should be handed a late invitation for next week’s Dubai Duty Free Irish Open.
“He’s got a nice game and he just made some mistakes an amateur would make at a US Open,” Westwood said. “But he’s obviously got a very bright future and I am really surprised nobody has given him an invite for the Irish Open next week.
“British Amateur champion from Ireland, I am a bit shocked at that. Maybe there should be a late one in there."