Justin Thomas tames Winged Foot to lead US Open
Soft greens no wind made conditions more scoreable than expected on the opening day
Justin Thomas hits from the fairway on the 12th hole during the first round of the 2020 US Open at Winged Foot Golf Club in Mamaroneck, New York. Photo: Justin Lane/EPA
The wolf came dressed in sheep’s clothing as the 120th US Open at the famed West Course at Winged Foot in Mamaroneck, New York, failed to bite in an opening round that featured holes-in-ones (two of them) and a plethora of sub-par scoring, with Justin Thomas again showcasing his major designs with an impressive five-under-par 65 that gave the world number three the first round lead.
Nobody expected this, not even with the championship being switched from its traditional June date to an autumnal September setting. The difference in the seasons, though, brought softer, more receptive greens and the expectation is that the SubAir irrigation system will be ramped up in the coming days to ensure firmer, less receptive, putting surfaces to ask tougher questions.
While Rory McIlroy looked far more interested in what was going on, shooting a first round 67, it was Thomas – playing beautifully from tee-to-green - who was most impressive on the first day, finishing a stroke ahead of Thomas Pieters, Matthew Wolff and Patrick Reed – whose round was ignited by a brilliant hole-in-one on the Par 3 seventh which was only acknowledged by the on-looking volunteers in the absence of any crowd.
But while the scoring generally was good, and with the expectation that the course will firm up over the coming days and especially the weekend, there were many who found the challenge beyond them. Among them were the three other Irish players in the field - Graeme McDowell, Shane Lowry and British Amateur champion James Sugrue - who all have a lot of work to do to make the cut on Friday.
For Lowry it was a strange sort of round which opened up with back-to-back birdies to propel him up the leaderboard before a bogey at the third set up a run that he couldn’t get off, dropping shorts on the third, fourth, fifth, seventh and eighth.
And the back nine didn’t get any better for the British Open winner who double bogeyed the 14th and bogeyed the 16th before finally making another birdie at the 17th only to give it straight back at the last hole, signing for a six over par round of 76.
McDowell, meanwhile, was also undone by a double bogey six which came at the fourth and while he did find birdies at the sixth and the ninth it was the bogeys at the seventh, 11th, 12th, 14th, 16th and 17th that saw him fall all the way back to six over and sign for a 76.
For Sugrue, who will be very much looking at this as a learning curve, the difficult realities of Major championship golf hit home hard early on as he opened with back-to-back bogeys before dropping six more shots and failing to find any birdies in his opening round, eventually signing for an eight over par round of 78.
But the season’s second Major proved, in its own way, to be intriguing. Although the USGA chose to clip the heavy rough from five inches down to a more manageable four, the conditions - barely a hint of wind and the soft greens - ensured the sort of scoring more normally associated with a regular PGA Tour event than with the US Open, which has earned a reputation for being the toughest of all the Majors. Indeed, of the five previous US Opens on the West Course at Winged Foot, four were won with over-par totals.
So, the surprise was that this latest edition produced so many birdies and even a number of eagles. Yet, as if to testify that the course retained some bite, Tiger Woods finished his round with a double bogey for a 73. “We have a long way to go. This is a long marathon of a tournament, there’s a lot of different things that can go on. I just wish I would have finished off my round better,” said a somewhat exasperated Woods, seeking to build on his career total of 15 Major titles.
Perhaps the benign nature of the setup took him by surprise, for there seemed to be a more benevolent approach in terms of pin placing which, combined with the benign conditions, made flag chasing more enticing than would be normal at a US Open.
Thomas, the US PGA champion of 2017, seemed more at home than anyone. The 27-year-old from Kentucky produced an impressive round of six birdies and a lone bogey to move to top of the leaderboard, hitting nine of 14 fairways and 14 of 18 greens.
“It was a really, really solid round of golf. it’s t one of the best rounds I’ve played in a while tee-to-green. There are a couple of things here and there that definitely could have been better, but I made sure all of my misses were in the right spot, and that’s what you have to do at a US Open,” said Thomas, whose best career finish at the championship is a tied-ninth at Erin Hills.
Thomas, for the most part, got into his own zone for the near five hours of his round. “I was in a really good frame of mind and I was focused. I just was sticking to my routine and playing every shot, as opposed to getting ahead of myself. It’s one of those rounds where it’s just kind of like, next thing you know, you make the putt and you are done for the day.”
Thomas was not alone of those at the business end of the leaderboard in pursuit of a second Major title. Reed, too, got into that heady environment. Reed suffered a double-bogey six on the fifth hole to stand two-over on his round standing on the sixth tee. His response? Well, that would be to birdie the sixth and go even better with an ace on the seventh, a hole which Will Zalatoris would ace later in the day.
“I had 166 yards, and from there I was thinking just kind of a stock 9-iron and Kes (caddie Kessler Karain) thought I needed to take a hair off of it. From there I knew that if I hit it a little too hard, it’s going to kind of bounce and use that backstop, going to be able to come down. And the biggest thing was make sure it enters from the right because it could kick left. I hit a perfect 90 percenter . . . (it) went in. I was excited but knew from that point, that, hey, you need to settle down, basically pay attention because once you hit one poor golf shot, a lot of things cans happen out there.”
Reed, to his credit, kept his mind on the job and a homeward run of 32 - with birdies on the 12, 13th and 15th - for a 66 kept him nipping at Thomas’s heels.
In the afternoon wave Pieters, who made just one bogey and five birdies in his round, and Wolff also got to four under.
After going out in two under par Wolff dropped a shot at the 10th but responded with three birdies in a row to get back to four under and one behind Thomas.
World number one Dustin Johnson looked out of sorts in an opening round of 73 for three over while Phil Mickelson hit just two fairways on his way to a 79 which looks to have ended his chances of finally completing the career grand slam.
First round scores in the US Open, Winged Foot GC, United States of America (USA unless stated, par 70):
(a) denotes amateurs
65 Justin Thomas
66 Matthew Wolff, Thomas Pieters (Bel), Patrick Reed
67 Rory McIlroy (NIrl), Louis Oosthuizen (Rsa), Lee Westwood (Eng)
68 Jason Kokrak, Xander Schauffele, Joaquin Niemann (Chi), Brendon Todd, Rafael Cabrera-Bello (Spa), Harris English
69 Tony Finau, Rory Sabbatini (Svk), Jon Rahm (Spa), Shaun Norris (Rsa), Bryson DeChambeau, Davis Thompson, Rickie Fowler, John Pak
70 (a) Chun An Yu (Tpe), Kurt Kitayama, Matt Wallace (Eng), Zach Johnson, Will Zalatoris, Patrick Cantlay, Danny Lee (Nzl), Michael Thompson, Christiaan Bezuidenhout (Rsa), Erik Van Rooyen (Rsa), Sungjae Im (Kor)
71 Hideki Matsuyama (Jpn), Byeong-Hun An (Kor), Viktor Hovland (Nor), Martin Kaymer (Ger), Renato Paratore (Ita), Webb Simpson, Stephan Jaeger (Ger), Chan Kim, Shugo Imahira (Jpn), Taylor Pendrith (Can), Sebastian Munoz (Col), Adrian Otaegui (Spa), Thomas Detry (Bel), Corey Conners (Can), JT Poston, Adam Scott (Aus), Lucas Glover, Lanto Griffin, (a) Andy Ogletree, Romain Langasque (Fra), Abraham Ancer (Mex), Cameron Smith (Aus), Andy Sullivan (Eng), Adam Long
72 Jason Day (Aus), Alex Noren (Swe), Paul Waring (Eng), Bubba Watson, Adam Hadwin (Can), Takumi Kanaya (a) (Jpn), Si Woo Kim (Kor), Ryo Ishikawa (Jpn), Lucas Herbert (Aus), Preston Summerhays, Jimmy Walker, Billy Horschel, Mackenzie Hughes (Can), Troy Merritt
73 Andrew Putnam, Tiger Woods, Ryan Palmer, Cameron Champ, Charles Howell III, Daniel Berger, Richy Werenski, Jazz Janewattananond (Tha), Justin Rose (Eng), Marc Leishman (Aus), Ricky Castillo, Bernd Wiesberger (Aut), Jordan Spieth, Mike Lorenzo-Vera (Fra), Chesson Hadley, Kevin Streelman, Joel Dahmen, Dustin Johnson, Tyler Duncan, Daniel Balin, Jim Herman
74 John Augenstein, Gary Woodland, Tom Lewis (Eng), Scott Hend (Aus), Tommy Fleetwood (Eng), Robert Macintyre (Sco), Henrik Stenson (Swe), Steve Stricker, Brandon Wu, JC Ritchie (Rsa), Sung Kang (Kor), Ryan Fox (Nzl), Matt Kuchar, Brian Harman, Sergio Garcia (Spa), Tyrrell Hatton (Eng), Matthew Fitzpatrick (Eng)
75 Branden Grace (Rsa), Chez Reavie, Kevin Na, Greyson Sigg, Keegan Bradley, Curtis Luck (Aus), Sandy Scott (Sco), Ian Poulter (Eng), Brandt Snedeker, Kevin Kisner
76 Dan McCarthy, Matt Jones (Aus), Graeme McDowell (NIrl), Mark Hubbard, Eduard Rousaud (Spa), Shane Lowry (Ire), Lee Hodges, Victor Perez (Fra), Collin Morikawa, Paul Casey (Eng)
77 Justin Harding (Rsa), (a) Cole Hammer, Danny Willett (Eng), Rasmus Hojgaard (Den), Matthias Schwab (Aut)
78 Max Homa, (a) James Sugrue (Ire), Ryan Vermeer, Sami Valimaki (Fin), Eddie Pepperell (Eng)
79 Davis Riley, Phil Mickelson
80 Lukas Michel (Aus)