Russell Henley tops U.S. Open leaderboard filled with big names
Russell Henley played in the Farmers Insurance Open at Torrey Pines in 2014, in his third year as a pro after a decorated college career at Georgia. Made a 40-foot birdie putt on No. 18 just to break 80 on the South Course. Missed the cut by six strokes.
“I don’t really remember [much] besides just leaving the course feeling like I just got beat up,” Henley said. “I played in that one time and really struggled, and it was like, well, I’ll just not play it from now on.”
So he didn’t.
He returned to Torrey Pines this week after sneaking into the U.S. Open, ranking 59th in late May when the top 60 received exemptions (before slipping to his current 63rd).
The result was a little bit different this time.
Joe Neuheisel, son of former UCLA football coach Rick Neuheisel, was an alternate to play in the U.S. Open at Torrey Pines, but only got a chance to play a practice round.
Henley shot a four-under 67 to take the first-round lead after a morning fog delay that lasted 90 minutes, and that included a bogey on his opening hole that brought flashbacks to 2014. The only similarity with his other trip around Torrey South was a birdie on 18, although this one required a putt 34 feet shorter.
Also at four under was South Africa’s Louis Oosthuizen, who didn’t tee off until after 3 p.m. and had two holes left when play was suspended just before 8. Players were allowed to finish their current hole (and Rory McIlroy’s group quickly hit their tee shots on 18 even though Sergio Garcia, in the group ahead, was still in the fairway).
Oosthuizen and Henley were unexpected figures atop the leaderboard. Oosthuizen, because he has never led a major after the first round in his previous 49 starts. Henley, because he has no top 10s and eight missed cuts in 26 appearances in majors.
As a college junior, Henley tied for low amateur at the 2010 U.S. Open but never finished higher than 25th as a pro. He didn’t qualify in 2019 and 2020.
“I don’t feel like it’s a huge surprise just because I do feel like I’ve played some good golf in some bigger events in the last year,” said Henley, 32, who last won on the PGA Tour in 2017. “But in terms of putting four rounds together at a U.S. Open, I’ve struggled with that. So I’m just going to keep trying.
“I’m just trying to hang in there.”
A pair of European veterans, Italy’s Francesco Molinari and Spain’s Rafa Cabrera Bello, were at three under. Lurking at two under are local favorite Xander Schauffele, two-time U.S. Open winner Brooks Koepka, reigning Masters champion Hideki Matsuyama and 2017 Farmers champion Jon Rahm. McIlroy, running from the fairway to the green in the fading light, birdied 18 to reach one under and avoid an early alarm clock.
Defending champion Bryson DeChambeau needed a late birdie to get to a two-over 73, then went immediately to the range to hit balls in the dark.
The marine layer retreated by mid-morning to create clear, calm conditions. It wasn’t until the first groups made the turn that the wind freshened and made club selection more perilous. Koepka and Patrick Rodgers both got to four under before dropping strokes as Torrey bared its teeth.
The weather changed yet again as evening approached, with the wind dying down but temperatures cooling.
There were 19 scores under par and four more still on the course when darkness fell. In the 2008 U.S. Open here, there were 11 total in the first round.
“I mean, you can’t win it today,” said Koepka, who also has two PGA titles, “but you can definitely lose it.”
Tee times, groupings and TV info for the first two rounds of the 2021 U.S. Open at Torrey Golf Course in San Diego.
The 2017 and 2018 champion avoided disaster on the seventh hole after hooking his drive off the cart path and under a picnic table in the Fan Oasis food court (and a guy in a pink shirt eating a wrap). He yanked his next shot under a tree next to the green, then chunked a chip from the rough before making a could-have-been-worse bogey.
Less fortunate were major champions Justin Thomas (73), Phil Mickelson (75), Collin Morikawa (75), Henrik Stenson (76), Martin Kaymer (77), Jordan Spieth (77), Justin Rose (78) and 2012 champion Webb Simpson (79).
“Not the start I wanted,” said Morikawa, who won the 2020 PGA Championship 10 months ago on a Harding Park seaside course in San Francisco. “Bogeying every par three and having three three-putts today, just not acceptable. I mean, it’s not how you keep yourself in a tournament on a Thursday.”
Koepka missed the 2020 U.S. Open last September following knee surgery. He was just down the road in La Jolla, renting a house for 21/2 months of rehab.
“I didn’t watch a shot,” Koepka said of DeChambeau’s six-stroke win at Winged Foot. “I don’t watch too much golf in the off time. It’s just … yeah.”
Zeigler writes for the San Diego Union-Tribune
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