This wasn’t the kind of fun Justin Thomas had in mind for a U.S. Open at Winged Foot.
For all the hype and history of how much punishment Winged Foot has doled out over the years. Thomas took advantage of a surprising soft and gentle Thursday morning with a 5-under 65, the lowest score in six U.S. Opens on this tough Tillinghast design.
And all that got him was a one-shot lead over Patrick Reed among early starters, with Rory McIlroy another shot behind and starting to swing freely.
Thomas went into the week saying it was a “different kind of fun” to grind over pars, to hit middle irons to difficult pins instead of the low scoring at so many other tournaments. He delivered six birdies and finished with a 25-footer on the 18th on a putt he barely moved to get it started down one of the many wicked slopes on Winged Foot’s greens.
“Yeah, 65 is fun no matter where you play, especially at Winged Foot,” Thomas said. “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 … next thing you know, you make the putt on 18, you’re done for the day.”
He played with Masters champion Tiger Woods and PGA champion Collin Morikawa, who couldn’t get done fast enough.
Woods was in five bunkers through five holes and then appeared to steady himself with three straight birdies around the turn to get under par, but only briefly. He made three bogeys coming in, still had a chance to post a reasonable score and then let it get away.
From short of the steep shelf fronting the 18th green, he flubbed a flop shot, pitched the next one about 8 feet beyond the pin and missed the putt to take double bogey for a73.
“I did not finish off the round like I needed to,” Woods said, a feeling he conveyed five more times out of the six questions he faced after his round.
Neither did Morikawa, who shot 40 on the back nine for a 76.
Most irritating to Woods was a missed chance to score. Low clouds added to the soft feel of Winged Foot. The greens were fast but not as firm. Jordan Spieth discovered that on the first hole. He was trying to figure out if his approach would take a hard hop and release or land soft and spin back. He guessed wrong, the ball rolled down the slope to the front of the the green and he three-putted for bogey. He also shot 73.
Thomas judged it correctly with a short iron left of the flag that spun back close to the hole for birdie. His only dropped shot came at the par-3 third because the ball settled on a downward slope of a bunker, leaving him no chance to get it close. There were few complaints the rest of the way.
He also made three birdies around the turn, narrowly missing a fourth in a row from just inside 10 feet at the par-5 12th. Thomas felt at easy, and Winged Foot allowed him to feel that way. At least on Thursday.
The previous low score for a U.S. Open was a 66 by Fuzzy Zoeller in the second round in 1984.
“The greens are very soft,” Thomas said. “I thought they’d be a little firmer, but I also understood that they need to err on this side of they can get them how they want this weekend. … It’s still Winged Foot. You’ve still got to hit the shots. That kind of was my game plan going into the week. Yeah, I need to respect the course. But if I’m driving it well and playing well, I do need to try to make some birdies.”
Reed did better than that. Starting with four pars and a double bogey on No. 5, Reed hit driver to the left edge of the rough on the short par-4 sixth and chipped to 6 feet. Then, he hit 9-iron that one-hopped into the hole for an ace on No. 7, and the awkward pause of making sure it was a hole-in-one because there are no spectators around to cheer.
“It would have been nuts. Up here in New York, the fans are amazing,” he said. “It was unfortunate the fans weren’t here because that would have been an awesome experience. But at the same time, an ace is an ace. I’ll take it either way.”
Reed prefers the U.S. Open to be a battle for par, and so it was for those who got out of position. Even then, he delivered. Reed clipped a tree on the 16th and was some 300 yards from the green and managed to escape with par. Ditto for the 17th, where he hammered a hybrid out of thick grass and let it run hot onto the putting surface.
McIlroy can make the game look easy anywhere, and such was the case He birdied three of the par 3s, and only a pair of three-putts — one for par, one for bogey — slowed him.
“It was one of those rounds I felt like could have been a little lower than it was, but at the same time 67 is a really good start.