Justin Thomas shines during a merciful U.S. Open first round at Winged Foot
Its brutality had long ago been established as lore — its fearsome greens, slender fairways and verdant, unrelenting rough the stuff of nightmares.
When Winged Foot Golf Club last hosted the U.S. Open 14 years ago, the storied New York course brought an entire field of golfers to its knees, sent a surging Phil Mickelson into a final-hole spiral, and crowned a champion, Geoff Ogilvy, who shot five over par. Thirty-two years before that, in a tournament later described as “The Massacre at Winged Foot,” Hale Irwin outlasted the field at seven over. Both rank among the highest winning scores at a major since World War II.
The specter of that formidable history left even the best golfers in the world wary ahead of this year’s 120th U.S. Open, held this week again at the merciless West course. Some wondered aloud if, for the fifth time in six tries, Winged Foot’s Open champion might not break par.
But after one round, it seems they had little to fear.
Twenty-one golfers turned in scores under par Thursday, defying the course’s lore with an unprecedented day of scoring marked by soft greens and generous conditions. Over the five previous U.S. Opens held at Winged Foot, only 19 combined had managed to finish the first round under par.
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None have ever turned in a Thursday score on this course as low as Justin Thomas. The third-ranked player in the world, Thomas shot a five-under 65 in a nearly spotless round that saw him hit nine of 14 fairways and card just a single bogey on a course otherwise unyielding to such precision.
Record-setting afternoon aside, he wasn’t about to make any sweeping proclamations about the 97-year-old course. Not with 54 holes still remaining. Not with six of the world’s other top-10 golfers below par, close behind.
“It’s still Winged Foot,” Thomas said. “You’ve still got to hit the shots. That kind of was my gameplan going into the week is that, yeah, 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, and that’s exactly what we did today.”
There were plenty of those to go around throughout. Midway through the round, Thomas traded birdies for three consecutive holes with Tiger Woods, who missed the cut in the last U.S. Open at Winged Foot, shortly after the 2006 death of his father, Earl.
Both Woods and Thomas had been inconsistent on the green during the PGA Tour’s shortened season. But after an uneven start, each seemed to find their stride at the turn, with Woods matching his birdie total from 2006 (three) in a matter of three holes. It was the final six holes, though, that would be the three-time Open champion’s undoing, capped by a double-bogey on the 18th.
“I did not finish off the round like I needed to,” said Woods, whose three-over 73 left him in a tie for 71st.
That score might have remained in close contention in any past years at Winged Foot. However, with USGA officials openly concerned about sunlight for a tournament that’s regularly played on Father’s Day, the famous course proved less fearsome than ever before.
Matthew Wolff, a 21-year-old Simi Valley native, took advantage with a four-under 66 and is one of three, along with Patrick Reed and Thomas Pieters, a stroke behind Thomas. He still called the course “one of the hardest” he’s ever played.
“You have to roll with the punches,” said Wolff, who had five birdies to one bogey. “I just hit the ball really well today.”
Reed delivered perhaps the most memorable shot of the day, one-hopping his tee shot on the seventh into the hole. Without the usual roar of a crowd, it took Reed a moment to realize that he’d hit an ace.
In the round’s afternoon wave, Will Zalatoris, who plays on the Korn Ferry Tour, added the day’s second ace on No. 7. Then, on the par-three 13th, he nearly hit another, only to watch his ball rattle off the flag stick.
Kartje reported from Los Angeles.
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