There has been an incredible amount of hype leading into 2020 U.S. Open at Winged Foot. The first major (of six!) this season on a classic course like this will always engender hysteria, even more so given how well many of the best players in the world have been playing over the last few months. Somehow, Round 1 lived up to (and maybe even exceeded) this hype.
The leaderboard is absolutely loaded (even by major championship standards), but two names stick out above the rest. Leader Justin Thomas (-5) and Rory McIlroy (-3) have plenty of experience winning big events, but they have also struggled at the four biggest tournaments in the world over the past few years. On Thursday, they put on a nearly-bogey-free show that has them as the top two favorites going into Round 2.
Let’s take a look at why this is so important after an easier-than-expected first round of the U.S. Open.
1. Rory and J.T.: If we’re talking about generational greats, these two are certainly in the conversation along with maybe a handful of others in this field. McIlroy has four majors, J.T. has just one, but neither has won one since Thomas took the 2017 PGA Championship. The primary reason for that is because they have struggled mightily out of the gates. According to Justin Ray, McIlroy and Thomas have both posted much higher Round 1 scores than Rounds 2-4 at the majors over the last few years.
This is why getting out of the starting blocks is so important for two of the strongest players in the field. McIlroy wins from out in front. In his four major wins, he’s averaged an opening-round score of 66. Thursday’s 67 fit the mold. Thomas, too, is a great closer. Get them to Sunday with a lead on the other 142 players in the field, and you can probably forget about anybody else winning.
They gained a combined 6.5 strokes on the field off the tee and with their approach shots so it was not just a putting festival from these two superstars. The great part for them is that as the course gets firmer and faster (see below) this will be advantageous to high-ball hitters who can keep it on a string like they can. I’m borderline giddy thinking about these two emerging on Sunday for a duel.
2. Loaded leaderboard: Normally, we would be talking about how we do not deserve this hilariously good leaderboard. However, it’s 2020, so I would argue that we actually do deserve this board. Included in the top 10 right now are Thomas, McIlroy, Patrick Reed, Thomas Pieters, Matthew Wolff, Lee Westwood, Louis Oosthuizen, Jason Kokrak, Xander Schauffele, Harris English, Joaquin Niemann, Rafa Cabrera Bello and Brendon Todd. A ball-striking bonanza! Not a pretender among that group! (OK, there are a few, but we’ll let it play out.) One back of the top 10 brings in Tony Finau, Bryson DeChambeau, Rickie Fowler and Jon Rahm. Why does any of this matter? Well, two decades’ worth of U.S. Opens have shown us the importance of getting near the lead after 18 holes. It will be pretty difficult to break through that mass of stars over the next three days.
3. Lefty struggles: Phil Mickelson birdied the first two holes on Thursday, and he should have walked off the course after that. He played his next 16 holes in 11 over, hitting just 2-of-4 fairways and losing five (!) strokes with his putter. He (sort of) warned us this was coming earlier in the week, but it was still shocking to actually watch. He beat two players in the field in Round 1. One is an amateur, and the other is on the Korn Ferry Tour. Mickelson’s last-ever U.S. Open round at Winged Foot will come on Friday morning early.
4. Scores were surprisingly low: In the lead up to Thursday, we were led to believe that all four rounds this week were going to be a nightmare for players. That was not the case in Round 1. Famously, there were just 12 rounds in the 60s for the entire 2006 U.S. Open here. On Thursday alone, there were 21 rounds in the 60s (or more than the first five U.S. Opens combined!). Nick Faldo said on the broadcast that part of the reason it was so easy because the USGA didn’t want six-hour rounds on Day 1 with limited sunlight. Also, there have been some immense equipment changes since 2006 that could be contributing. I suspect the pins will get more tucked and the greens will firm out as the week wears on and that we’ll still see something over par win the event.
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5. Amateur breaks par: It’s easy to envision that as a newspaper headline if this was 1920 instead of 2020, right? Georgia golfer Davis Thompson ran it all the way to 4 under at one point and led the U.S. Open over Thomas and McIlroy before stumbling a bit coming home. Still, he shot 69 on Thursday, which was an all-time great round for an am at Winged Foot.
6. Big Boy’s style … worked: I did not have high expectations for Bryson DeChambeau this week, but he went out in 33 and finished the round at 1 under, four back of Thomas. One thing we may have underestimated is how relatively easy it was to get out of the thicker rough at Winged Foot. It does not make sense when you’re watching on TV because there are shots where you cannot even see the ball. However, most shots I saw out of the long stuff came out cleaner than you would have imagined. I still have questions about Bryson when the greens get hard, but he passed a nice little exam on Day 1.
7. Niemann is special: I tried to give you Joaquin Niemann at 100-1 three weeks ago, and I hope you took it. He went out in 31 (!) on Thursday and brought it home with eight 4s and a 5 on the back nine to get in at 3 under. His ball-striking will rise to the occasion as the greens crisp up later on this week. If he putts, he’ll almost certainly contend.
8. Jordan Spieth is broken: Not exactly huge news here, but it’s always tough to watch somebody who was one of the three youngest to three majors (Tiger Woods and Jack Nicklaus were the others) struggle like he has (and is) at the major championships. This quote from him after his 73 is rough: “Standing on a tee at the U.S. Open and not exactly knowing where the ball is going to go is not a great feeling,” said Spieth. “I know you guys probably haven’t experienced that before, but it’s not incredibly enjoyable. But I’ll grind it out. I don’t ever give up. I have no reason to. I’m here. I feel that, even with not having much tee to green, I can somehow still shoot an even or under par round on this course, and that’s incredible self-belief in the grind.”
9. Where you at Mr. D.J.? The most disappointing round of Thursday has to go to Dustin Johnson, who shot 73 after coming in off an all-time heater in which he’d won two of his last three tournaments and finished in the top two at four in a row. He doubled the par-4 4th hole early and sort of coasted home the rest of the way. He’s not out of it because we’ve often seen D.J. played better as the heat gets turned up on the course, but he needs something special early on Friday.