News & Opinion

U.S. Open bully Winged Foot gets beaten up in Round 1

Lee Westwood on 18th hole at Winged Foot in 1st round at 2020 U.S. Open
Lee Westwood and caddie Helen Storey ascend the slope toward the 18th green at a Winged Foot West Course that surrendered 21 under-par scores in Thursday’s 1st round of the U.S. Open, including Westwood’s 67.

With 21 players under par, led by Justin Thomas’ 5-under 65, feared Winged Foot turns submissive … if only for a day

The world waited three months for the U.S. Open finally to tee off at Winged Foot, a delay caused by pandemic concerns.

The world will have to wait a few more days for another “Massacre at Winged Foot,” if it happens at all.

The Open’s buildup was about how thick and deep the rough was and how firm and treacherous Winged Foot’s carnival-sloped greens were. This was supposed to be the long-awaited sequel to the 1974 Open dubbed the “Massacre at Winged Foot,” during which Hale Irwin’s winning score was 7 over par.

Instead, the Open’s opening round a looked a lot like Thursday at, say, the Valero Texas Open. Justin Thomas grabbed the early lead with a 5-under 65 – 10 shots to par better than Geoff Ogilvy’s winning score in 2006, when Winged Foot last hosted the Open – and the lowest score in any Open played at Winged Foot (scores).

No one saw this coming.

Former Masters champion Patrick Reed hit only five fairways. That’s supposed to be the kiss of death around this A.W. Tillinghast track. Yet Reed shot a 4-under 66. It helped that he aced the par-3 seventh hole. So did Will Zalatoris, who had a second potential ace clang off the pin at the 13th. Fifty-three-year-old Steve Stricker saw his approach shot lip out at No. 7, also. For a few hours, it appeared that aces might be part of some kind of buy-one-get-one special.

Related: Follow our complete coverage of the 2020 U.S. Open

Reed wasn’t alone at 66. Matthew Wolff and Thomas Pieters shot 4-under, too, while Rory McIlroy, Louis Oosthuizen and 47-year-old Lee Westwood were at 67.

Even par in Round 1 didn’t buy a player a spot in the top 20, an unusual stat for any U.S. Open. There were more red numbers on the leaderboard than in the Congressional budget. At Winged Foot, the place where pars usually go to die?

Yes. It sounds suspiciously like fake news and yet, it happened. Given the dire expectations, it was as if Hurricane Winged Foot had been downgraded to a tropical storm … for now.

“We had kind of ideal conditions,” said ex-Masters champion Adam Scott, who posted 71.

“The golf course was there to be had,” said defending Masters champion Tiger Woods, who stumbled with a bogey-double bogey finish for 73. “They gave us a lot of opportunities with the hole locations.” (More on Woods' opening round here.)

“The course played good, probably the easiest it could play,” said Danny Balin, the head pro at Fresh Meadow Country Club in Lake Success, N.Y., given the honor of hitting the first shot off the 10th tee in his U.S. Open debut.

The course played easier than expected because there was barely any breeze, the greens were softened by cool overnight temperatures and heavy dew and because the USGA didn’t break out its killer pin positions for Round 1, given that it had to get 144 players around the course in 150 fewer minutes of daylight than in June when the Open originally was scheduled.

No one took better advantage of the day than Reed, 30, who had a solid last season with a World Golf Championships title and seven other top-10 finishes. He aced the seventh when his shot took one bounce and dived into the cup. He played a low, looping draw on the tough par-3 13th to 3 feet for a birdie. He was 3 under par on those two par-3 holes and scrambled his way out of the rough on most of the others.

“Honestly, I did not see that many guys being under par so far,” Reed said. “Even with the pin placements and the greens being soft, it’s still a hard golf course. You get in the rough, it’s hard to get the ball on the green.”

Reed did an exception job of the latter. He was only mildly disappointed to be deprived of the opportunity to hear a vocal New York gallery react to his ace, as fans were not allowed to attend because of the coronavirus pandemic.

“It would have been nuts,” Reed said. “The fans in New York are amazing. It was unfortunate they weren’t here, because that would have been an awesome experience. But an ace is an ace, I’ll take it.”

Scores were lower than usual for the field, but it wasn’t as if many players, if any, made Winged Foot look easy.

The rough played defense for Winged Foot even if the greens were somewhat easier than usual.

Phil Mickelson shot 79 despite opening his round with back-to-back birdies following phenomenal recovery shots from the rough. Repeated errant tee shots into the thick stuff – he hit only 2 of 14 fairways, the same as he did in the 2006 Open’s final round – finally caught up with him, however. Mickelson had eight bogeys and one double bogey.

Dustin Johnson, the world’s No. 1-ranked player, battled the rough to post a 73. Spain’s Jon Rahm, ranked No. 2, shot 69 and gave an indication that he might be a player to watch heading into the weekend.

Rahm was in the afternoon wave on a day when the soft greens endured a lot of traffic before he got to them. As a result, his putting results suffered.

“After this many people play through, the greens get a little bumpy, and there are some big slopes out here,” Rahm said. “When you’re playing putts with 2, 3, 4 feet of break, you’re not hitting them firm. When they’re a little bit irregular, you might get some odd bounce, and that’s what happened to me today.”

Remember, Rahm is the guy who finished 66-64 at Olympia Fields and beat Johnson in a playoff at the BMW Championship when their 72-hole scores were only 4 under. That course had formidable rough. Rahm shot 66-66 at East Lake in the final two rounds of the Tour Championship and placed fourth on a course with gnarly Bermuda rough.

Here’s another course with wicked rough, and it is right up his alley because Rahm is longer and straighter off the tee than most of his competitors. His confidence wasn’t dented at all in this first round.

“As hard as it is to believe I’m going to say this, it was a relatively stress-free round because of how good I hit it today,” Rahm said. “I had a lot of birdie looks. I wish I would have made a few, yeah, but hopefully I can keep striking it like this.”

Rahm seems to be more of an Open-style player who fares better when scores aren’t so low. And nobody thinks Thursday’s relatively mild onslaught of birdies will continue, do they?

“It’s possible,” said England’s Westwood, who hasn’t won a major. “I’m not shocked to see somebody shoot 5 under par and see a few scores right behind it. But they [USGA] can dry the greens out; they can hide the flags a lot more. It would surprise me if 5 under is not the best score of the week.”

The logical forecast, then, is for higher scoring on the weekend. That is what most observers expected.

Surprisingly, they’re still waiting.

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