When swaggering towards victory at the Open Championship of 2014, Rory McIlroy teased observers with news that he was focusing only on two words when in the heat of battle. Upon collection of the Claret Jug, McIlroy offered “process” and “spot” as the somewhat unremarkable detail.
There can be no doubts relating to the terminology at the forefront of McIlroy’s mind as he approached the 120th US Open at Winged Foot. Fast starts, or the lack of them, have been repeatedly highlighted by the Northern Irishman as key to a wait for a fifth major triumph that has now stretched to six years. Job done. A 67, three under par, is precisely the kind of platform he has been in seeking. On the previous three occasions McIlroy opened a major with a round of 67 or better, he won.
“I’ve maybe been putting myself under a little too much pressure to get off to a good start,” McIlroy said. “First round of a major you’re always anxious to play well and maybe I’ve over-thought it at times. I just went out today and just took what was given to me. I was a little more relaxed and played really nicely.
“I took a couple of my chances today. It was one of those rounds I felt like could have been a little lower than it was, but at the same time 67 is a really good start.”
McIlroy birdied his 1st hole – remarkably, the first time he has done that at a US Open – and shaved the cup on the next. The tone had been set by a player curiously absent from the forefront of pre-tournament chatter. He missed a glorious opportunity to move to four under at the 6th, his 15th, but saved par nervelessly at the next two holes. He must wish the US Open ran a 2’s sweep; he birdied three of Winged Foot’s four par-threes.
The clear and present dangers to McIlroy are two-fold. Justin Thomas posted an effortless 65, as only endorsed widespread theories he should be the favourite. It may also be the case – and history suggests so – that the United States Golf Association will not take kindly to Thomas and company scoring relatively freely on day one. The next three rounds may well resemble bare‑knuckle golf. As Justin Rose put it after signing for a 73, the course is likely to be “cranked up”.
Thomas converted from 24ft for a glorious birdie at the last. Having won four times in the past 13 months, he knows what to do from here. Thomas is entitled to believe his career is worthy of more than the one major title that has been returned thus far.
“It was a really, really solid round of golf,” said Thomas. “It’s one of the best rounds I’ve played in a while tee to green. There are a couple of things here and there that definitely could have been better but I made sure all of my misses were in the right spot and that’s what you have to do at a US Open.
“It’s helpful with three days left but this is not even remotely close to being over. As great of a round and fun as it was, it’s over with now, and I need to get over it because I’ve got 54 more holes to try to play well and shoot some good scores.”
Patrick Reed’s 66 was notable for a hole in one at the 7th. Incredibly, the former Masters champion claimed the ace was only his second as a professional and third of his life. Matthew Wolff, part of an exciting batch of fresh talent on the PGA Tour, matched Reed’s four under par.
Tiger Woods did not look particularly comfortable when en route to a 73. An early-morning start in New York state in mid‑September is not helpful for a player who now openly admits to recurring back stiffness. Woods actually birdied five holes but troubles elsewhere were emphasised by a fluffed chip on the 18th. He closed bogey, double-bogey. “This is a marathon of a tournament,” Woods said. Just as well, Tiger.
Thomas Pieters, who appeared destined for stardom not so long ago, posted matching halves of 33. “It will only get harder,” warned the Belgian with a knowing smile. Lee Westwood rolled back the years with an afternoon 67. Bryson DeChambeau cracked his opening drive 385 yards and hit the ball 68 times thereafter. Dustin Johnson, the world No 1, was ragged during his 73. Phil Mickelson’s 79 was his worst score in a US Open. Ouch.