SOUTHAMPTON, N.Y. — The plaguing wind left them digging sand out of their eyes and trying to hold on to their caps, and self-esteem. It grabbed at their shirts and their pantlegs, like it was trying to rip the clothes off their backs. It ballooned their scores and stripped away their vanity. There were no real leaders after the first round of the U.S. Open at Shinnecock Hills, just a small handful of weather-beaten survivors, a group of four players who barely managed to break par, all tied at 1-under with their 69s.
The steady blow across the sandhills of this crooked old par-70 made the flags fly perfectly horizontal, and tents snap at their cables, and the long grasses wave in sheets. It rocked flagsticks and messed with their judgement, their golf swings and their dignity.There was Dustin Johnson, the No. 1 player in the world, searching on his hands and knees for his ball in the deep fescue of the sixth hole, fortunate to get a free drop when a TV announcer unwittingly stepped on it, a break that helped him to his 69. There was Tiger Woods, four-putting for a double bogey at the par-4 13th, on his way to a 78 that included a triple and two double bogeys.
“Anything under par on this golf course is very good, especially in the conditions we have today,” Johnson said. “I felt like, you know, from start to finish, it was very difficult. You had to focus on every single shot you hit.”
Sometimes, they sent short wedge shots soaring over the closely mown greens. Sometimes, the tilted greens spilled shots back into their laps. The course played to an average score of just over 76, and the back nine to an ego-destroying 39. By the end of the day there would be 836 bogeys.
“Come on Jordan, pick your head up! Pick your head up!” a spectator yelled at Jordan Spieth, as the 24-year-old went trudging by on his way to a 78. Another spectator stared at the scores of Spieth’s playing partners — Phil Mickelson, who shot 77, and Rory McIlroy, an 80 — and said, “Bad, bad, and worse.”
The ones who fared the best were those who lowered their expectations, conceded their dignity, and found a way to limit the damage. Ian Poulter braced himself to accept a miserable round in a tournament he has made no secret of hating in the past — he once vowed never to play an Open again, despite his eight top 10 finishes in majors.
“I haven’t enjoyed very many, to be honest,” said Poulter, a Brit. “They’re difficult. They’re hot. They’re stressful. Feels like you’re pulling teeth every single hole you play.”
But Poulter somehow found his way to a 69 that was his best start ever in an Open. “If I hit it in the rough, I hit it in the rough,” he said. “I’m going to try and make par the hard way and just knock it — just don’t get too bogged down with it.”
Scott Piercy was similarly casual. On Wednesday, he had stalked off the course in frustration on the fourth hole of his practice round. He went back to his room and ordered a pizza and looked at some old pictures of himself, when he was swinging well. The result: a 69 that tied him for the lead with Johnson, Poulter, and Russell Henley, a slim Georgian with three PGA Tour wins to his credit.
“I sort of started from the bottom, in my mind,” Piercy said. “Went home, pounded some pizza, and just had some fun hanging around the house. I just needed some time away. . . . Golf’s hard enough as it is, and then we’re at the U.S. Open.”
The veteran winners of major championships were savvy enough to know that an over-par round wasn’t necessarily a bad start in an Open, not in this northwesterly wind, which gusted from 15 to 30 mph without a letup, and not on this course. Raymond Floyd shot 75 here in 1986 on the way to his victory. Defending champion Brooks Koepka could console himself with the thought that he was in good historical company after his own 75. “You know, it’s a U.S. Open,” Koepka said. “You can shoot, whatever, 5 over today and shoot 1 under tomorrow and be just fine going into the weekend. So I’m not too concerned.”
Justin Rose, the 2013 champion, knew he was in for a tough day when he arrived at the course and saw the flags lining the clubhouse flying “dead straight.” He was pleasantly surprised with his 71 and would have been perfectly happy with a 72 or a 73. “I’m aware of the big picture in this tournament, I think, and I think I knew what today was all about,” He said. “It was about hanging in there. . . . Today is about eliminating a bad round. . . . Just really working hard out there to make sure nothing slips away.”
It was defensive golf, and not everyone had a taste for it like Rose did.
“It’s a different type of enjoyment, right?” Rose said. “It’s a sort of, I enjoy the battle. I enjoy the fight. I enjoy the grind, really. I do enjoy it, especially when you’re on the right side of the fight. When you get a bit cut up and bruised, it can change pretty quick.”
One of those who didn’t savor it was Masters champion Patrick Reed, frustrated with his 73 though it left him well in contention tied for 20th.“Not good,” he said. “I need to clean it up and get my act together, start playing golf.”
In fact, it was perfectly good score given the vagaries of the breezes and just how difficult it had made things at Shinnecock. “I feel like the wind’s affecting everything,” Reed said. “Everything from ball-striking to the greens.”