News & Opinion

No whining, many birdies mark 'fair' Open

PEBBLE BEACH, Calif. – Welcome to Apology Thursday at the U.S. Open. We haven’t seen scoring this easy since the U.S. women’s World Cup soccer team racked up 13 against Thailand.

Players, send your thank-you notes in care of the U.S. Golf Association.

After last year’s debacle at Shinnecock Hills, USGA officials weren’t going to let the greens get away from them again.

Soft fairways, receptive greens, reasonable pin positions and only a lambs-breath worth of wind at Pebble Beach gave the U.S. Open’s first round a makeover. The usual fear and loathing were replaced by birdies and eagles. What better way to regain the confidence and trust of the world’s best players than by letting them light up Pebble Beach as if it were the John Deere Classic?

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Justin Rose blasts to within 5 feet to save par at the par-3 fifth hole Thursday en route to a 6-under 65 and the 1st-round lead at the U.S. Open at Pebble Beach.

© USGA/J.D. CUBAN
Justin Rose blasts to within 5 feet to save par at the 5th hole Thursday en route to a 6-under 65 and the 1st-round lead at the U.S. Open at Pebble Beach.

Leader Justin Rose shot 6-under 65, and Rickie Fowler, Louis Oosthuizen, Xander Schauffele and Aaron Wise were tied for second at 66 (scores). The number of eagles hit double digits, the most in 50 years. The leaderboard was a sea of red numbers – 39 players under par after 18 holes – not that there’s anything wrong with that. It’s just funny that after all of the pre-tournament talk about getting back to basics at the U.S. Open and going old-school with fearsome rough and ferocious conditions, instead we got what politicos like to call “a nothing-burger.”

The biggest tip-off that this was not your father’s big, bad U.S. Open was the lack of whining and complaining, formerly an Open staple. Ah, those were the days.…

“It was very stress-free,” said Fowler, who missed only one fairway and two greens and likely barely noticed the rough. “The golf course was definitely gettable and scorable. I thought today’s setup was great.”

So, now the USGA is getting compliments? Did I step into an alternate universe? Is Donald Trump the leader of the feminist movement here? Is Bill Belichick a hilarious late-night talk-show host?

“I felt the conditions were really fair,” said Scott Piercy, who started par-birdie-par-birdie-birdie-eagle and was 5 under par through six holes, eventually posting a 67.

Fair? I thought that word was banned from all U.S. Open stories. Well, Brooks Koepka, the two-time defending champion, shot 3-under 32 on his opening nine midway through the afternoon, and that was good enough only for sixth place at the time. He finished at 69.

Scoring was low. Let’s try to remember that’s a good thing. We’re just not used to it at the Open. And it certainly makes for better television than players mopping up pars and bogeys. Ultimately, TV is really what this is all about.

When the U.S. Open was here in 2010, nobody finished 72 holes under par. Graeme McDowell won at even par. Only nine players were under par in Round 1, and the low was 69.

“I don't think level par wins this week,” McDowell said after his opening 69. “I feel like the fairways are soft, and they're not going to get any fierier than this, and they're spongy. That makes the fairways play a little wider, so the fairways are easier to hit.”

In the 2000 U.S. Open here, only one player finished under par: Tiger Woods, at minus-12. The next-best score was 3 over.

So clearly, Thursday’s birdie buffet was an anomaly in Pebble Beach’s Open history. It’s nothing that a 25-mph breeze wouldn’t have changed.

“It’s about as good a U.S. Open setup as I’ve seen for a first round,” said Spain’s Jon Rahm, who shot 69. “The wind didn’t blow, so that made it reasonable to shoot a score.”

Of course Rahm liked the setup. This is only his fourth Open. That hardly makes him an expert but is previous first-round scores were 76, 76 and 78. So, start writing that thank-you note, buddy.

Even Phil Mickelson, not a member of the USGA fan club, camped happily despite shooting 1-over 72. On the speed of the greens, which were only moderately fast, Mickelson said, “I think this is the best I’ve ever seen. I’m sure it will progressively get more difficult. Today was a chance to get a few under par, and I just didn’t do it.”

Is it possible that the USGA finally got the setup right? Mickelson was asked. “It seems like it,” he said. “There’s three more days. You don’t know how the weather is going to be and all that stuff. But it seems like they did a heck of a job.”

I love semantics. It seems like they did a heck of a job isn’t the same as, They did a heck of a job. But let’s leave the courtroom lawyering to the burping heads on CNN and Fox. Mickelson is happy. Let’s enjoy this unique U.S. Open moment together.

Rory McIlroy has won four major championships, though none since 2014, and all were on courses with softer-than-normal conditions. So, coming off his Canadian Open victory last week and that stirring final-round 61, it was no surprise that McIlroy got off to a rare good start in this Open. He shot 68.

“The fairways are very slow; the greens are quite soft,” he said. “There’s some generous fairways; the 13th is 45 yards wide. There are generous targets out there. While conditions are this benign, you need to take advantage of it. Thankfully, I did today.”

The rough was deeper than some past Opens, but it was easier to avoid. That was the important part of the first round’s news: It was a day to take advantage of the easier-than-usual course and the conditions, because those conditions could change.

“I fully expect the greens to get firmer and faster,” McDowell said. “The green speeds today weren’t anywhere near as fast as they can be. Be careful what you wish for. I think we’re going to see it come the weekend.”

McDowell might be right, except that the weather forecast – only moderately reliable in this area of the central California coast – for the next three days is more of the same. Expect cool temperatures barely crawling into the low 60s, with maybe a little sun at times, and no big winds.

“I don’t think the wind is supposed to be more than 10-15 mph over the next few days,” Fowler said. “This course is a bit more fun and shows its teeth with the wind.”

Actually, most players thought it was plenty of fun Thursday. Fun at a U.S. Open? Believe it.

Apology accepted, USGA.

Gary Van Sickle has covered golf since 1980 for Sports Illustrated and Golf.com, Golf World and The Milwaukee Journal. Email: gvansick@aol.com; Twitter: @GaryVanSickle