SOUTHAMPTON, N.Y. – Shinnecock Hills didn’t waste any time re-introducing itself to American golf Thursday morning.
Amateur Garrett Rank, a National Hockey League official in real life (and a Canadian), was close to the 10th green in two shots while playing the first hole of his first U.S. Open. He faced a delicate pitch shot that he deftly deposited on the putting surface … temporarily.
“Then it just kind of slowly death-rolled off the green, about 40 feet,” Rank said with a wry smile, “and I’m like, OK, I’m definitely at the U.S. Open now. It hit me right in the face on my first hole.”
Rank shot 83. “I didn’t play my best today,” he said, “but even if I had, I maybe would have shot 5 or 6 over par.”
Welcome to Shinnecock Hills, everyone, and an honest-to-goodness, authentic, in-your-grill, par-is-a-good-score, industrial-strength National Open (scores).
The American flag at the end of Shinnecock’s stately clubhouse didn’t just flap spread-eagled in the 20-mph-plus wind all day; it snapped, crackled and popped.
Don’t kid yourself that this was one of the toughest days in U.S. Open history. It’s not even in the top 20. In the 1986 Open here, 45 players (nearly a third of the field) didn’t break 80. Thursday, the field averaged 76.474, nearly 6½ strokes over par. Last year at Erin Hills, for comparison purposes, the first-round scoring average was 73.3.
Shinnecock rocks. Its members and USGA officials surely nodded in smug satisfaction that the National Open got its mojo back while many of the world’s finest golfers groaned as if they’d just been sucker-punched.
How tough was it Thursday?
Rory McIlroy shot 80. He beat an NHL official by only three strokes.
Phil Mickelson, who lost a heartbreaking Open here in 2004, should’ve been paired with the NHL official because he shot the score known in caddie circles as hockey sticks: 77.
The clever USGA pairing of the three players who are one major title away from the career Grand Slam – Mickelson, McIlroy and Jordan Spieth – combined to shoot 25 over par. Spieth posted a 78.
Jon Rahm watched in horror as his 18-inch putt on the 18th green horseshoed out and he racked up at 78.
Tiger Woods hit his approach shot long at the opening hole, and it clanked off the hard slope over the green and ran well down a hill. His flop shot from a fluffy lie didn’t fly far enough and rolled back down the slope but stayed in the short stuff. Dang, or words to that effect. Woods tried using a putter. Dadgummit, or words to that effect. It, too, rolled back down the slope. He finally putted it onto the green, then needed two more putts to get down for an opening triple-bogey 7.
Woods put on a smart display of shot-making after that and was hanging on at only 4 over par early into the back nine. Then he four-putted for a hideous double bogey at the 13th hole, the last three putts coming from within 3 feet. The runners came off the sled after that, and Woods struggled home with 78.
The 10th green was particularly difficult to hit. It is perched up on a ledge, got extremely firm and played downwind. Justin Thomas, who recently had a four-week run as the No. 1 player in the world, played some kind of ping-pong back and forth over that green and made a double bogey.
The gusting wind, the firm greens and the penal rough beyond the widened fairways were considerable, but the hole locations sat at the intersection of Insidious and Diabolical.
England’s Ian Poulter, who shared the lead with Americans Russell Henley, Dustin Johnson and Scott Piercy at 1 under, managed three birdies.
“There are a couple of very tight pin locations cut on slopes,” Poulter said. “The greens are just extremely slopey. You could still be relatively aggressive with how soft the greens were, but you had to be super careful.”
The wind put a premium on ball-striking. The greens put a premium on cautious putting.
“You had to hit quality golf shots,” said Masters champion Patrick Reed, who shot 73. “The USGA set up the course like a U.S. Open, like it should be. If you don’t hit a great shot, you’re going to struggle.”
Please don’t overlook the thick fescue rough. Johnson hit one into the hay and couldn’t find it in the heavy grass. A search party began looking for it, including Woods, who was playing in the group, plus media types such as SiriusXM Radio voice John Maginnes and Fox Sports analyst Curtis Strange. At one point, Johnson was on his hands and knees sifting through the undergrowth.
When his Fox colleagues asked Strange why he wasn’t searching harder, he replied that there are signs on the course warning of ticks. Johnson found his ball, but it was determined that someone in the group had stepped on it. Johnson got a drop but still made bogey.
Mickey DeMorat wasn’t as lucky. Thursday was his 23rd birthday, he just finished his college career at Liberty University and was, in fact, wearing his team gear for his first tournament round as a professional. He flared a drive into the right rough at the par-4 14th hole. When he got to the area where his ball entered the fescue, a volunteer marshal directed him to his ball in the thick stuff. DeMorat, from Merritt Island, Fla., played it out to the fairway, then noticed a red line on the ball – it wasn’t his Titleist.
A search ensued, and DeMorat’s actual tee shot was found. He made a par with the original ball, holing a clutch 35-foot putt, but added a two-shot penalty that gave him a double bogey. He angrily busted a big drive on the next hole, made birdie, the first of two in a row, and shot 72, a good score on a rugged day.
“The marshal pointed to the ball,” DeMorat said. “I should’ve checked it, but I didn’t think to. It was a mental mistake. That rough was so deep, there were probably a lot of balls in there.”
Bad breaks and tough conditions are part of the National Open’s DNA. Thursday, probably every Open contestant felt the same way that Justin Rose did about his round of 71.
“I’m just happy it’s over,” Rose said.
Not so fast, Justin. The fun is just getting started.