For many of the biggest names in golf, the story of the first round of the 118th U.S. Open Thursday at Shinnecock Hills might as well have been titled “Gone With the Wind.” They watched helplessly as their scores and chances to win were blown up by stiff breezes that often gusted in excess of 30 miles per hour.
Phil Mickelson and Bubba Watson carded a 7-over 77; Jordan Spieth, Joe Rahm and Adam Scott labored to 78s; major champions Jason Day, Charl Schwartzel and Graeme McDowell all shot 79; former U.S. Open champ Rory McIlroy soared to an 80, and Martin Kaymer, a two-time major champ, shot 83. Tiger Woods opened triple bogey-bogey and ultimately posted a 78.
Given that carnage, the first day of the U.S. Open really was more of a survival test than anything else. No one managed the conditions better than world No. 1 Dustin Johnson, who saved par at the final hole for a 1-under-par 69 that left him in a four-way tie for the lead with Ian Poulter, Russell Henley and Scott Piercy. Jason Dufner was a stroke back at 70, and the seven-man contingent at 1-over 71 included former major champs Justin Rose and Henrik Stenson.
Despite bogeys on the 12th and 14th holes after he reached 3 under, Johnson’s unflappable demeanor, not to mention his power and accuracy off the tee, were suited to the conditions. “Anything under par is a very good score,” Johnson said. “From start to finish, it was very difficult. You had to focus on every single shot you hit.”
Johnson caught a couple of good breaks on the front nine. At the par-4 6th, his drive disappeared in the rough. Former PGA champion Rich Beem, who is serving as an on-course announcer, accidentally stepped on the ball in the ensuing search, leading to a free drop for Johnson, who chopped it back to the fairway and bogeyed the hole.
“There was a [marshall] standing there, they watched it bounce in there, and he just stood on the hill and waited for all of us to come up,” Johnson said. “You would think he would go and at least mark the spot where it was. But obviously, it was nice for (Beem) to find my ball.”
Then, Johnson holed a bunker shot for birdie at the par-4 8th hole to get back to 2 under. “It’s definitely a bonus for it to go in,” Johnson said.
Like Johnson, Henley played in the afternoon when the winds abated slightly but still were strong enough to aid a 408-yard drive by Justin Thomas at the 18th hole. Henley credited his own straight driver for his success, but he missed short birdie putts at the 15th and 16th holes and then bogeyed the 18th.
Despite that ending, he stayed positive after learning a lesson at last year’s U.S. Open, when he blew up in the final round to drop to 27th.
“I just lost it mentally and just started trying stupid shots,” Henley said. “It just takes one or two bad decisions to make it pile on top of each other, especially on a course like this. Emotionally, you have to be in control and really believe in what you’re doing.”
Poulter, who recently won in Houston, agreed. He has a checkered U.S. Open history that began in 2004 at Shinnecock Hills, but on Thursday, he birdied Nos. 7 and 11, the two toughest par-3s, to gain a big edge on the field.
“Every one of the U.S. Opens I’ve played in the past, I’ve been disappointed,” Poulter said. “I’ve been angry. I’ve been frustrated. This week from a mindset perspective, it’s really about trying to just enjoy my golf. I certainly did that today.”