PINEHURST, N.C. - Amid the annual chatter about how hard a U.S. Open course is, the most difficult thing Thursday on the rustic, rough-less Pinehurst No. 2 was realizing that it actually was a U.S. Open course. Expansive sand, native grasses and brownish fairways took some getting used to. Then there was the most unusual sight of all: Someone shot 5-under-par 65.
"It's a good round of golf. I wasn't expecting it and I'm not freaking out about it," said Martin Kaymer, who shot it and then refused to get caught up with the fact it was the best score on this course in its three Opens. "I put myself in good position but we have three rounds to go. There's so much golf to play. The golf course will change a lot. So that first round is a good start, but that's it. There's nothing more than that."
No one knew quite what to expect of this venue, which has had a retro overhaul since its previous whirl at hosting the major championship in 2005, when Michael Campbell won with a four-round total of par. Despite the absence of traditional thick Open rough, the layout looked so hard, fast and difficult during practice rounds that Kaymer had told someone on Wednesday that he would settle for 8 over by Sunday.
"Hopefully, I'm not right with the plus-8. I would be disappointed," he said Thursday after he took a three-stroke lead over Graeme McDowell, Kevin Na, Brandon De Jonge and Fran Quinn. Adding another odd perspective to the day, Quinn had not played in an Open since 1996.
McDowell said after his morning round that "this golf course is not going to give you many birdies." He predicted that the winner will have 10 to 12 for the week. But Kaymer, playing in the supposedly more challenging afternoon, made six of them. Four came in a bogey-free back nine capped by a 10-foot putt for 2 on No. 17.
Most golfers indicated that the U.S. Golf Association had softened the course, so approach shots remained close to holes rather than careening down slopes on the turtle-back greens. So while sentimental favorite Phil Mickelson and oddsmakers favorite Rory McIlroy were content with respectable Open scores of par and 1 over, respectively, they were outdone by many others.
There were varied opinions on what the new-look Pinehurst looked like. Zach Johnson (1 over) said it reminded him of a British Open setup. Brandt Snedeker, who got as low as 4 under before making three bogeys and a double bogey on the back nine to finish at 1 under, said it seemed like a typical U.S. Open. "It felt just as nerve- wracking and just as uncomfortable from the first tee."
Kaymer thought it evoked "a tournament somewhere in Australia, a little linksy style."
He did not think it had a whole lot in common with Whistling Straits, site of his one major title, the 2010 PGA Championship, regardless of the latter's prevalent sand. "Well, with all respect, it's not as pretty as Whistling Straits. There's more water at Whistling Straits," he said.
Kaymer, 29, from Germany, is a different golfer than he was back then, having withstood a prolonged slump. He began recovering from that by sinking the deciding putt for Europe at the 2012 Ryder Cup and added momentum by winning the Players Championship last month.
But with all respect to him, if anyone symbolized the unusual nature of Round One Thursday, it was Quinn. He explained that he has been so preoccupied just trying to eke out a living on minor tours, he has seldom had the time to even try to qualify for the Open. But he did for this one at the sectional in Purchase, N.Y.
To shoot 68 on his return, he said, "was a dream start."
"I'm 49. It's Father's Day weekend. I've got my boy on the bag. My dad passed away two years ago and I know he's looking down today," he said. "It's just a tremendous feeling."