BROOKLINE, Mass. — So whom do you like from that six-man tangle near the top of the U.S. Open leader board after opening round? Do you take the players known only to golf eggheads and ranked 592nd, 445th, 296th, 130th or 105th? Do you take the English bloke ranked 445th whose clubs got stuck at the Toronto airport so he had to walk around here Sunday with just a wedge? Do you take the Swede ranked 592nd who hadn’t been in a major in five years but got into this one after playing his last three holes of qualifying in the Ohioan darkness, then not qualifying, then entering when Martin Kaymer withdrew?
Or do you take Rory McIlroy?
Of course you do on that last one, but they’re all up there, so many that at 5:42 p.m. Thursday, there was a seven-way tie for first between some people you know and some you never thought you would know: MJ Daffue, Joel Dahmen, Matt Fitzpatrick, Adam Hadwin, David Lingmerth, McIlroy and Callum Tarren.
That’s right, apparently, and then by evening, they had shaken a little: the Canadian Hadwin in the lead at 4 under par and a mere five-way tie for second among the Englishman Tarren, the Swede Lingmerth, the South African Daffue, the American Dahmen and the global icon McIlroy (who is from Northern Ireland).
“You’d take 67 around this course any day,” McIlroy had said earlier, and boy would you because five people clearly did.
The group stood thick and populous beneath Hadwin’s 66 even though it lost Fitzpatrick, the hip pick of cognoscenti, when he bogeyed No. 18. Fitzpatrick would be the 27-year-old Englishman from Sheffield ranked 18th in the world who won the 2013 U.S. Amateur on this very Country Club course that seldom conducts majors, which makes his experience here unusual in the field, and who got close last month at the PGA Championship in Tulsa, lamenting his closing 3-over 73 by committing accuracy with, “I shoot level par today, and I win it outright.”
By Thursday evening, in contention again at 2 under, he called it “different” being the hip pick and said: “I’ve got great memories of the place, and the whole time I’ve been out, I see shots that I hit and I see the places I was. I think because of that, I’m a bit more at ease.”
He thrived on a course the players seemed to fancy but couldn’t quite bury. Nobody reached 5 under all day, only Hadwin and McIlroy ever reached 4 under, but plenty of people were under par: 25 of them all told. They included 12 people at 1 under and two former U.S. Open champions (Dustin Johnson, Justin Rose) among the seven at 2 under.
It became the second straight major in which McIlroy announced contention early, following on his opening 65 at the PGA. (He wound up eighth.) “I’m going into tomorrow with the mind-set of, ‘Let’s keep it going,’ rather than, ‘Where is the cut line?’ or whatever,” he said, having refrained from digging himself the chasm he has during some of the 28 long and blurry majors since his last major win at the 2014 PGA Championship.
With a closing and winning 62 at the Canadian Open on Sunday freshly in the books, McIlroy fielded a question about whether he’s motivated by the loud defections to the Saudi-backed LIV Golf. “Not really,” he said. “It’s been eight years since I won a major, and I just want to get my hands on one again.”
He started early, and those who did often thrived. Five holes in with no wind, defending champion Jon Rahm had himself a moment when, he said, “I was thinking, ‘We’re going to blow the roof off this place.’ ” Reigning British Open champion Collin Morikawa, a two-time major winner at 25, called it “gettable,” a word shelved if not condemned at most U.S. Opens. Both shot 1-under 69s. Then Rahm et al started to feel the crosswinds, and the crosswinds got durable into the afternoon, and the scores settled at good if not wild.
All along, galleries kept getting introduced to people.
Here came Hadwin, 34, late in the day, ranked 105th, ranked third among Canadians, his lone PGA Tour win the 2017 Valspar Championship.
“This has been a year in the making, really,” Hadwin said. “We set out on a journey, I think, last March, [swing coach Mark Blackburn] and I. Not of changing the golf swing but changing the club face in the swing, which may be more difficult in and of itself.”
Here came Tarren, 31, ranked 445th, participant in two majors lifetime (the 2019 U.S. Open the other), so make it two majors in which his clubs did not arrive at baggage claim. “I got here [from Toronto], no clubs,” he said. “There were five other players on my flight. They all got golf clubs, so it was the second U.S. Open I’ve played in, and the second time, no golf clubs.” He got it solved by Monday with help from some of those 38 million helpful souls: Canadians.
Here came Lingmerth, 34, ranked 592nd, seven long years after winning the 2015 Memorial. “Yeah, I’ve had a tough go since basically late 2018,” he said. “Had a bunch of injuries and whatnot. There have been some tough days, not going to lie, and you kind of start asking yourself those questions. But I’m pretty stubborn, and I’m not one to give up.”
Here came Dahmen, 34, ranked 130th and in his ninth major and savoring a course kind enough to refrain from demanding that everybody hit it like Hercules (or McIlroy). “If you look at my game and what I am,” he said, “for me to make it on tour for six years and play this well, that’s probably overachieving, some would say. I wasn’t all-American. I wasn’t the best. . . . I knew I could compete here because it’s not overly long. Yeah, like the Winged Foot [in 2020] stood out to me. I didn’t have a fighting chance there.”
And here came Daffue, 33, whose life changed at 11 when he and his father played a round with two-time U.S. Open champion Retief Goosen, a fellow South African who encourages him still. “We never really talked about advice,” he said. “The one time I asked him, I said, ‘Hey, how do you do so well under pressure at U.S. Opens?’ He said, ‘I’ve just done it a few times.’ It makes a lot of sense, actually. The more you do it, the more you get used to it.”
And, of course, here came McIlroy. You have heard that before.