So after 6 p.m., when rain started to fall again, up came Rory McIlroy, the young man from Northern Ireland known for his boundless talent, his exuberant spirit — and, unfortunately, his collapse at the Masters. His response, both to a hectic opening day at the U.S. Open and any demons he still may carry: a bogey-free 6-under-par 65 that sets him apart from a leader board crowded with former major winners and surprises alike.
“It’s not going to be that easy every day,” McIlroy said. “I know that. I think everyone else knows that.”
The other folks who found Congressional’s 7,574-yard layout at all easy: Charl Schwartzel of South Africa, the reigning Masters champion, and Y.E. Yang of South Korea, the 2009 PGA champion, who each shot 68. The group of six players at 69 included 2010 British Open winner Louis Oosthuizen, Schwartzel’s countryman, and Spaniard Sergio Garcia, whose decade-long-plus quest for his first major continues here.
The diversity on that leader board fits both a U.S. Open and the state of the world game right now. But there is no better way to demonstrate all that happened here Thursday — a day that began at 7 a.m. and lasted until nearly 8 p.m. — than to look at McIlroy, seeking his first major, and Mickelson, who already owns four but is after his first U.S. Open.
They went off in the same star-studded group. They played the course completely differently from the start. McIlroy’s opening tee shot at the par-3 10th: safely on the green, one of 17 greens he hit on the day, best in the field. Mickelson’s opening tee shot, a moment later on the same hole: dumped into the water, leading to an opening double bogey.
“It was pretty much stress-free golf,” McIlroy said.
McIlroy might have been alone in that sentiment.
“I hit it horrific today,” Mickelson said.
Mickelson was definitely not alone in that one, but he was singular in the style in which he delivered those horrors. He managed to hit all of five fairways, and made some bizarre decisions along the way. At the massive 494-yard par-4 11th, he hit 2-iron off the tee, then 3-wood out of the second cut of rough. Somehow he made par. At the eighth, he carried his tee shot so far left, it ended up in a greenside bunker — at the adjacent fifth. He finished with a 3-over 74 in which he took the most meandering tour of Congressional possible.
“This could have been a day that’s easily in the 80s,” Mickelson said, “and somehow I was able to get myself around and be only 3 over.”