MAMARONECK, N.Y. — Of all the golf courses that have hosted multiple U.S. Opens, Winged Foot Golf Club is known as a backbreaker that can make grown men weep. Who can forget how Phil Mickelson and Colin Montgomerie finished with double bogeys in 2006 to lose by one to Geoff Ogilvy’s 5-over par? And of course, the 1974 U.S. Open is recalled as the "Massacre at Winged Foot," producing Hale Irwin’s winning 7-over number.
That’s the sort of carnage that was expected for the 120th U.S. Open that began on Thursday, but it turned into a surprising birdie barrage as 32 players shot par-70 or better. Leader Justin Thomas started his 5-under 65 with a birdie at No. 1 and ended it with a birdie at No. 18 while putting together a streak of three straight birdies from the 9th through the 11th.
Playing just in front of Thomas in the morning wave, Patrick Reed scored a hole-in-one at the par-3 7th and shot 66, a number matched in the afternoon by Thomas Pieters and Matthew Wolff. Four-time major winner Rory McIlroy was 3-under on the par threes on his way to a 67 along with Lee Westwood and Louis Oosthuizen.
The group of six players at 68 included Xander Schauffele and Harris English. Two leading lights who failed to take advantage were world No. 1 Dustin Johnson, who made just two birdies on his way to a 73, and defending champ Gary Woodland, who shot 74.
Thomas said the low scoring resulted from surprisingly soft greens that are expected to firm up considerably. "It’s still Winged Foot," Thomas said. "You’ve still got to hit good shots. I need to respect the course, but if I’m driving it well and playing well, I do need to try to make some birdies. That’s exactly what I did today.
"I hit a lot of quality tee shots. The few greens I missed, I hit good bunker shots to give myself par chances. It’s one of the best rounds I’ve played in a while tee to green."
After making a double bogey at the fifth hole, Reed followed with a birdie at the sixth and then his ace at 165-yard No. 7, where his 9-iron took one hop and leaped into the cup. Roars normally would have reverberated, but no fans are permitted because of the COVID-19 pandemic.
Asked about the absence of fans, Reed smiled and said, "It would have been nuts. Up here in New York, the fans are amazing. It was unfortunate the fans weren’t here because that would have been an awesome experience. At the same time, an ace is an ace. I’ll take it either way."
From there, Reed made three more birdies with no bogeys for his 4-under total and admitted he was surprised by the low numbers. "Honestly, I did not see that many guys being under par so far," Reed said. "Even with the pin placements and with the greens being soft, it’s still a hard course.
"There’s a lot of golf left, 54 holes, and really you’ve just got to continue attacking…If you let up at all or try to play conservative, that’s when you also can get in trouble here."
Despite all the red numbers, McIlroy expects Winged Foot to exact its measure of revenge. "I wouldn’t call it ‘scorable’ by any stretch of the imagination," McIlroy said. "There’s a couple guys that went lower than maybe was expected, but it’s not as if the rest of the field are finding it that easy."
Just ask Mickelson, who started with two birdies and but got beat up on his way to a 79. "I thought it was a good opportunity to score low today," Mickelson said. "I just played terrible."