SOUTHAMPTON, N.Y. – Baffled by the greens and battered by the breeze, the marquee group in the first round of the U.S. Open delivered an historically horror show performance.
Rory McIlroy, Jordan Spieth and Phil Mickelson, whose combined world ranking 30 was the lowest of any group and whose combined net worth is probably about $1 billion, carried with them a monstrous gallery and great expectations when they teed off at 8:02. Those expectations went unmet.
They combined to shoot 25-over par.
When the day began the threesome seemed certain to provide some highlights, what with their combined 68 PGA Tour wins, 12 major championships and $163 million in career winnings.
Instead: 25-over. They combined for just six birdies, and half of those came on No. 5, by far the easiest hole of the day. USGA researchers could not find a high-powered group that performed worse in the first round of its flagship tournament.
It’s not unusual for top players in good form to falter at a U.S. Open in an unfamiliar venue. In 2013, the field shrugged at short, saturated Merion Golf Club, but 1-over won. In 2014, the field sniffed at the retro-fitted No. 2 course at the Pinehurst Resort, but 1-under won. Thursday, at Shinnecock Hills Golf Club, four golfers led at 1-under led after 18 holes, including world No. 1 Dustin Johnson.
Before the tournament some players and pundits experts believed that the winning score might be as low as 8-under. Similar optimism surrounded Merion and Pinehurst. Recalculations came quickly there, too.
The players and pundits show too little respect for great old courses in the hands of the USGA. Grand dames like Merion, Pinehurst and Shinny were born with penal rough, tricky routes and, most significantly, diabolical greens. These tracks require careful attention, but most players won’t take the time to fully acquaint themselves with these ancient masterpieces. Instead, they show up a week early, knock it around a bit, then weep when the old ladies shoot them down.
McIlroy shot 80 at the par-70 layout. Jordan Spieth was 8-over, with a 78. Phil Mickelson was the medalist in the group, but he gave his New York faithful little to cheer about with a 77.
Then they fled, tails twixt their legs. None answered questions from reporters, though Spieth spoke to a USGA representative.
“There were certainly some dicey pins, but at the same time there were guys that shot under par,” Speith said. “So I could have played better.”
Spieth had to be buttonholed as he signed autographs. Mickelson, cagily, slid away in the other direction, Sharpie in his hand, signing furiously, his lips sealed. McIlroy didn’t even bother to sign. He bolted through the crowd without a sideways glance, having logged the worst 18 holes of his 125 major championship rounds.
McIlroy had shot 80 twice before in majors, but the 10-over score was his worst performance relative to par. This also was his worst opening round in a major. He deserved it.
They all did.
Like most U.S. Open venues, Shinnecock demands straight, long drives, but the devil here, as at Merion and Pinehurst, lies in the small margins for error around the greens, amplified when the greens are fast and when the course is dry and windy. In those conditions, firing at the flagstick can be fatal.
And so it was.
Spieth took dead aim at No. 11 and made triple-bogey. It was his second hole of the day — the group started on No. 10 — and it is a frightening, 159-yard par-3, so hard that it’s known as “the shortest par-5 in the world.” Its false front repels short shots. Spieth was short with his tee shot, then short with his first chip, which made for delightful theater as he sprinted up the hill to mark it. He was too late. It rolled back to his feet.
“Just tried to do a little too much on the second hole,” he said, “and it kind of bit me.”
Once bitten didn’t make him shy. Spieth fired at the stick on No. 7, another wicked par-3, but was short again, then again was short with his chip, though this time it held the green. Three putts later he had a double-bogey, his seventh score of bogey or worse.
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McIlroy took to chances, too. He was wide right on No. 2, a 252-yard par-3, which left him short-sided with little chance at par. He bogeyed. McIlroy then had 99 yards to the the green at No. 4, but he was short by 10 yards, which cost him a birdie putt. He went long on No. 9, from 167 yards, and made bogey.
Mickelson was not immune, either, but the adoring crowd didn’t much care. He was cheered all afternoon and received a standing ovation from the small grandstand at the eighth green, even after he sloppily missed the left-side pin in the rough, to the left. A few minutes later the crowd cheered his eighth bogey of the day, the 24th of the 25 bogeys-or-worse from Group 16.
The 25th came from McIlroy on No. 9, the group’s final hole of the day. By then, Spieth was encouringing McIlroy’s chip from beyond the green to release. It did not, because McIlroy nipped it too crisply, into the wind and into the grain.
The greens weren’t the only defenses the group failed to respect. The fairway on No. 3 is roughly the size of Long Island Sound, but the 10-mph left-to-right wind amplified the natural left-to-right slope of the fairway, and all three tee shots came to rest in the right rough. Spieth later cost himself a shot when he blew a driver through the fairway from the shortened tees at No. 6.
Granted, the course was hard for everyone. Dustin Johnson, one of four players tied for the lead, was the only top-10 player who finished under par. Fifth-ranked Jon Rahm shot 8-over and eighth-ranked Jason Day finished 9-over. Tiger Woods, ranked 80th, was 8-over, too. They would have fit right in with Group 16.
It’s difficult to overstate the exquisite awfulness of Mickelson, ranked No. 20, McIlroy, No. 6, and Spieth, No. 4. The best aggregate ranking of any group that scored worse than 25-over than without an amateur was Group 2: Scott Stallings, Sebastian Munoz and Matthew Southgate — combined world ranking, 621.
Maybe one day they’ll learn. Maybe one day they’ll see that the old girls are still beautiful … and they still have their teeth.