PEBBLE BEACH, Calif. — Rory McIlroy made a point on Wednesday to highlight his slow starts at recent majors and how they put him “behind the eight ball.” On Thursday — knowing he needed something low to have a shot at winning major No. 5 at Pebble Beach this week — he went out and shot just that.
McIlroy fired a 3-under 68, which was good for T8 after 18 holes and three back of leader Justin Rose, who tied a U.S. Open at Pebble Beach record (previously held by Tiger Woods alone) with a 65. McIlroy’s 68 was also good enough to make you wonder whether he should be considered the favorite of the golfers behind Rose going into the final 54 holes.
The four-time major champ started on No. 10, where he made a bogey. Thoughts of his Wednesday presser rang in my head. Even after he went 22 deep at the Canadian Open last week, it was hard to not think that this was the same story different year for somebody who’s missed three straight U.S. Open cuts.
Then he didn’t make another bogey all day.
The reason he closed with four birdies and 13 pars is because he hit 12 of 18 greens in regulation and putted his pants off. That’s the frightening part for his competition. If McIlroy is really rolling it at a major championship, he’s harder to close than anybody in the sport.
He said this week that he was spurred by a conversation he had at the U.S. Open’s champions dinner on Tuesday when he, Brooks Koepka and Jordan Spieth and their significant others shut down the party and stayed 90 minutes later than everybody else.
“I said yesterday I had a great table with Brooks and Jordan and just sort of talking to them, how they’re going to play the golf course,” said McIlroy. “A unanimous sort of thought with all of us: You hit it into the middle of every green here. These greens are, on average, the smallest that we play all year. So, unanimous decision was if you hit the middle of the greens all week, you’re not going far wrong. I know it’s important most weeks, but especially this week, just keep it in the fairways and keep hitting greens, and you’re going to be OK.”
The slow, soft track played into McIlroy hands on Thursday, and it likely won’t be that easy again the rest of the week. Still, his start on Thursday is the kind of start that has led to him playing relaxed, spectacular golf in majors gone by. Whether that happens this week remains to be seen, but the eight ball was nowhere to be found on Thursday and McIlroy has a real chance to turn four big ones into five come Sunday.
Here are nine other thoughts on the first round of the 2019 U.S. Open.
1. Too far the other way: The USGA can’t do anything right, can it? If the course plays too hard, they’re crooked. If it plays too easy, they’re soft (literally and figuratively). On Thursday, viewers who wanted carnage got none, but it’s coming, said the players.
“It’s a very soft start to a U.S. Open, which is a good thing, because you’re completely in control of the golf course,” said McIlroy. “They can do whatever they want with it from here. It’s not as if you’re starting with a course that’s in the condition like a Sunday and then you get three days and it sort of starts to get away from you. If they want to dial it up and make it a little bit further, they just don’t have to put much water on it tonight, and we’ll come out tomorrow and it will play a little bit trickier. From the scores I’m seeing, that’s really what I expect for tomorrow.”
We may have seen a glorified AT&T Pebble Beach Pro-Am on Thursday, but hold off on the criticism because that’s fine because that’s not likely what we’re going to see the rest of the week.
2. Sustainable Rose: I have concerns about Justin Rose’s wild 65 on Thursday. Foremost among them is that him finishing in the top five around the greens and on them is not anywhere near sustainable. You can view this one of two ways ,though. The first is that his ball-striking will eventually shine through and pick him up when the putting falls off. The second is that his ball-striking won’t come (he only has one top 10 since March), and the putter won’t buoy him forever. Friday and Saturday will be telling.
3. Rickie shows out: Is this the week? We’ve been here (many times) before with Rickie Fowler, who at one point co-leds with Xander Schauffele, Louis Oosthuizen and Aaron Wise. It’s never clicked for him for four days, though. At some point it will — I think — I just don’t know when or where that time is going to be. The biggest concern I have about Fowler? He’s top 25 in Round 1-3 scoring average and 98th in Round 4.
4. This place: Guys, I think maybe all the U.S. Opens should be played at Pebble Beach forever.
5. King Koepka fades: When back-to-back champ Brooks Koepka started 4 under thru six holes, I legitimately thought we might be on 60 watch. He talks so much trash, and then he backs it up even harder than he talks it. He faded late with some bogeys to a 2-under 69, but at T16 he’s still in good position. In 2017 when he won, he was two back after Round 1. In 2018 when he won, he was six back after Round 1. He split the difference this year and is four back of Rose’s lead.
6. The best Poke? Reigning U.S. Amateur champ, Viktor Hovland, was 4 under thru seven holes before ejecting a little with a double at the 8th. I talked to his college coach, Alan Bratton, on Wednesday after a practice round, and he had me convinced Hovland could contend this week. Bratton noted that Hovland won the U.S. Am on this course and played another regular season college event here, so he had more on-course experience than most of the pros playing. Hovland is 2 under and T16 after Round 1.
7. Brandt Snedeker’s repeat: From the “the professionals are nothing like us” files, Snedeker made a birdie on No. 18 with his feet nearly in the Pacific Ocean. It’s almost the same spot he made a birdie from at the beginning of the year.
8. Jordan Spieth’s issues: The 2015 champion of this event shot a 1-over 72 on Thursday, which should not be surprising to anyone who’s been following closely. Spieth came in struggling with his iron play, and on Thursday he struggled with his iron play. The climax came on the par-4 8th hole when Spieth hit his drive down a mountain and his dropped third shot over the green. Then it got interesting.
9. What’s the number? I asked McIlroy after his 3-under 68 whether he would take that score at the end of the week. He was quick and effusive with his curt answer: “No,” he said through a smile, insinuating that it’s going to be much lower than that.