ERIN, Wis. – With a precision that Bernhard Langer would have envied, Rickie Fowler seized the first round lead of the 117th U.S. Open with a dazzling 7-under 65. It was the lowest score to par in the first round of the National Open since Jack Nicklaus and Tom Weiskopf fired 7-under 63s at Baltusrol in 1980.
Fowler’s card was sparkling clean – seven birdies, no bogeys. Better still (as far as he’s concerned) he hit 12 of 14 fairways, 15 of 18 greens and took a mere 28 putts. Fowler holds a one-shot lead over England’s Paul Casey and PGA Tour rookie Xander Schauffele – making his first major championship appearance - who also had a bogey-free round.
As predicted by co-architect Ron Whitten, the par 5s at Erin Hills proved vulnerable to low scores, and Fowler birdied all four of them, three times with wedges in his hands.
“It was nice getting off to a quick start, birdieing 11, and kind of getting a bonus on 12 after hitting it in the first cut off the tee,” Fowler surmised. “Then from there, I was just taking advantage of the par 5s. So really just had to add a couple more, and that was the round.”
That game plan was emulated and executed by a great many players on Thursday as Erin Hills handed out low scores like free cheese samples. Thursday was the easiest first round since 1983; the scoring average for the field was a paltry 73.33, just 1.33 strokes over par. By contrast each of the last three years running, the field has played the opening round 3.8, 2.7, and 3.2 strokes over par respectively. A whopping 42 players finished the day under par, breaking the U.S. Open record of 39 set at Medinah in 1990, and a total of 60 players shot even par or better. Are we at Erin Hills or Olympia Fields?
It was a combination of rain softening the golf course, the widest fairways in U.S. Open history (excepting Chambers Bay in 2015) no wind and four par 5s that left Erin Hills defenseless.
“I think there's a lot more room than there normally is at the U.S. Open off the tee, and if you give the best golfers in the world this much room then you've got to expect good scores, especially with the greens having a lot of rain on them last night,” noted England’s Lee Westwood. “The players out here now aren't intimidated by long golf courses, they're intimidated by tight golf courses,” he concluded.
Westwood’s strange round included nine straight pars on the front, but five birdies and a double bogey on the back for a Jekyll-Hyde 3-under 69, four shots back. The crowd of eight players at 3 under also includes fan favorites Andrew “Beef” Johnston and J.B. Holmes.
Perhaps the most dangerous name within striking distance at this juncture is Patrick Reed. The feisty Ryder Cup star caught fire on the back nine, birdieing Nos. 13, 14, 16 and 18 en route to a 4-under 68.
“Around a place like this, even though it's soft you can attack a little bit more,” Reed observed. “I think that's the key around here, especially early on when there's not that much wind. If you hit the fairways, you can attack. And also when you're attacking, you're allowed to have a lot easier putts.”
The four-player logjam at 4 under also includes 2015 Open Championship playoff runner-up Marc Leishman, Canadian Adam Hadwin and this week’s malcontent Kevin Na, who was in a much better mood, despite having to take an unplayable lie after hitting his tee shot in the high fescue on the seventh hole.
“There was definitely under par out there today. The greens were holding. There was a slight breeze, not to affect it. But I thought overall it was playing pretty fair,” Na surmised.
Shockingly, former major champions and eight of the top 10 players in the world struggled mightily on Thursday. None of the top 17 players on the leaderboard have won a major. You have to go all the way down to T-18 to find two-time U.S. Open Champion Ernie Els and 2003 U.S. Open winner Jim Furyk and Masters champion Sergio Garcia, all at 2 under.
Many marquee names have their will have to go low Friday or they’ll be headed home with a trunk slam and a screech of tires. The No. 1, 2 and 3 players in the world shot a combined 16-over par. Jason Day looked like a weekender, as pitch shots rolled back to his feet, bunker shots scurried off the green into chipping swales and tee shots ballooned into the fescue. He shot a 7-over 79. Four-time major winner Rory McIlroy was dead last in driving accuracy, hitting only five fairways and carding a ghastly 6-over 78. Defending champion Dustin Johnson, many pundits' pre-tournament favorite, opened with a pedestrian 3-over 75.
Still, Thursday is just “getting to know you,” and a hot start is just that and nothing more. Only seven players have gone wire-to-wire (with no ties) to win the U.S. Open. Five of them are golf royalty: Tiger Woods, Ben Hogan, James Barnes (the great player of the 1910s and ‘20s who also won the first two PGA Championships), Walter Hagen and Tony Jacklin. The other two, Rory McIlroy and Martin Kaymer, may become royalty some day as they already have six majors combined and have many prime golfing years left.
For those of you yelling at the computer screen, “Wait a minute! What about Jack Nicklaus?” Nicklaus won wire-to-wire twice, but there were ties. As we mentioned above, in 1980 he was tied after the first round with Tom Weiskopf after round one. Similarly, at Pebble in 1972 Jack opened with 71, but so did five other golfers, Kermit Zarley (?!), Mason Randolph, Tom Shaw, Chi Chi Rodriguez and Orville Moody. Murderer’s Row? I think not.
Don’t feel bad though. The great Dan Jenkins tried to tell me Tommy Bolt also did it in 1958 – “I was there!” he exclaimed – but Dan forgot that after round one Bolt was tied with Julius Boros and Dick Metz.
There was a poignant silence for a minute, then Jenkins snarled “Dick Metz…” much the same way that he acidicly says the name “Jack Fleck.”
“It's just the first round. So yeah, it is always cool to be part of some sort of history in golf. But I'd rather be remembered for something that's done on Sunday,” Fowler stated firmly. “I’ll take the cumulative of that [7 under]. I don't need a whole lot more after putting 7 (under) up today.”
“The more sunny days we have like this, it's going to get firmer and faster as the week goes on. You can't start Thursday having them as firm and fast as you want, by Sunday the golf course would be unplayable,” added Patrick Reed. “It's going to be tough, but we all expect that.”
Opens usually do get progressively harder as the week wears on. One player described the process as “a handful of people under par on Thursday, nobody under par come Sunday.” His year, however, the par of 72 and four reachable par 5s.