ERIN, Wis. – Experience versus youth. Patience versus impatience. A career in twilight versus unlimited potential.
Both were on display in Thursday’s first round of the U.S. Open at Erin Hills as Ernie Els and Jon Rahm played on opposite sides of the morning wave, with results that would surprise many golf enthusiasts.
Els, 47, a two-time U.S. Open winner, shot 2-under 70, his best opening round since shooting 70 in 2008 at Torrey Pines. If not for bogeys on the last two holes, Els could have posted his best opening round in 25 U.S. Opens (https://www.facebook.com/morningread/).
Rahm, 22, came to Wisconsin full of potential, at No. 10 in the Official World Golf Ranking. The Spaniard already has won in his first year on the PGA Tour, at the Farmers Insurance Open at Torrey Pines.
For Rahm, the 4-over 76 here extends a disturbing trend. In his first eight events as a professional, he recorded 20 rounds in the 60s, never shooting above 73 and not missing a cut. Since a runner-up finish at the WGC-Dell Match Play, Rahm recorded a 75 in the final round of the Masters, an 82 in the third round of the Players and missed the cut with a 73-77 at the Memorial Tournament, his most recent start.
By comparison, Els has shown little to indicate that he would contend this week, with nine missed cuts and a withdrawal in 15 starts and a season-best T-35 at the AT&T Byron Nelson.
“Seems like my back nine, I had to do a lot of grinding right through there,” Els said. “When you make those par putts, they almost feel as good as a birdie putt. You know, you've been around quite a few of these, and you've got to keep grinding along and just keep trying to put a score on the boards. So that's what the mindset is.”
Rahm, who started on the back nine, struggled with a 4-over 40 before settling down to par his second nine.
“My caddie and Tim (Mickelson, Rahm’s agent and former coach at Arizona State) pointed out that my iron [play] was a little bit off,” Rahm said.” I've been working on it. And I think when I got to the course I was thinking about that a little bit too much. I didn't play golf.”
Els trails leader Rickie Fowler by five strokes but knows that a fifth major championship is not out of reach.
“I felt good from the moment I walked through the gates here and on the course,” Els said. “I look over and it almost looks like a British Open Championship, in a way. The crowds are happy to see us here. It's the first-time U.S. Open site, so there are a lot of positives out there, and I'm trying to feed off of that.”
Rahm isn’t sure what Friday might bring.
“Obviously, there's always a chance,” said Rahm, who tied for 23rd in last year’s U.S. Open, playing as an amateur. “If I come back the way I've been playing and have a couple of good days of putting, I'll maybe give myself a chance. Hopefully, tomorrow [I will] get a good round going so I don’t have to think too much about the cut.”
For one day, experience conquered youth, patience outdistanced impatience and a player ranked 401st in the world bested a top-10 player by six strokes.
Welcome to the U.S. Open.
Alex Miceli is the founder and publisher of Morning Read. Email: email@example.com; Twitter: @AlexMiceli