An illustration of how deep the rough is at Shinnecock Hills ... for a second there, it looked as though McIlroy had lost his ball, a mere ten yards into it. Stewards eventually find it, but it takes McIlroy two lashes to get it back out, the long grass throttling the shaft of his club and turning it over. He finds the middle of the green with his fourth. This is a disastrous start for the 2011 champ. Some place, though, this. The only lost ball in Jack Nicklaus’s entire career came at Shinnecock, in 1986. He’d just won the Masters, his 18th major. McIlroy might cut a highly frustrated figure, but he’s in good company.
McIlroy ran up a double bogey there, after hitting a sand wedge into the green. His putting - this isn’t breaking news - is a shambles. Spieth’s is uncharacteristically shaky, too. Phil is Phil. But these three need something to happen. Mickelson crashes his drive at 14 down the middle, but Spieth and McIlroy send theirs whistling into the extremely punitive rough down the right. That’s not going to be good. Better news for the 2013 champion Justin Rose, who is in good nick coming into this week. He’s birdied 5 to move to -1, and now has a share of the lead, because Aaron Baddeley has bogeyed 15 to drop back into the pack.
The wind is really picking up. The tall fescue whips up and down violently. These are testing conditions all right. Mickelson comes up short at 13, then leaves his chip 12 feet short. Bogey. McIlroy dumps his second, a sand wedge, in the bunker to the right and shortsides himself. His ball’s plugged, too, and he can only blast his ball 50 feet past the hole. He runs his long par saver seven feet past, then misses the one coming back. Double bogey. Spieth however lands his second pin high to eight feet, a glorious approach. Or was it slightly pushed, a stroke of luck? You’ve got to take it when it comes. But his birdie putt stays out on the high side. Par. Nobody’s happy here. All three storm off in hot funks. Mickelson is +3, while McIlroy and Spieth are both +4.
A fair bit of movement at the top, as a few players register early birdies ... while Patrick Reed drops one at 12, leaving Aaron Baddeley alone at the top. There are only ten players under par right now, but some big names amongst them, now including Ian Poulter, the in-form Thorbjorn Olesen, and serial nearly-man Matt Kuchar.
-2: Baddeley (5*)-1: Steele (6), Koepka (4), Grace (4*), Poulter (3), Reed (3*), Kuchar (2), Olesen (1), Hoffman (2*), Knox (1*)
At 12, Mickelson hoicks his second into the thick fescue to the right of the green. He can’t see his ball as he swings at it, and despite thrashing a lob to 12 feet, isn’t able to save his par. He’s +2. A two-putt par for Spieth steadies that ship a little: he stays at +4. And finally McIlroy misses another short putt, failing to commit to a downhill tiddler. That’s dismal, when it looked as though he was going to scramble par, having lashed an iron from the tee into the thick rough, only to escape well. He’s +2, and this marquee group is struggling.
And the weather isn’t going to help much. We’ve already seen perhaps the most mentally tough competitor in the golfing world, Jordan Spieth, come a cropper on these hard, fast, difficult-to-hold greens. Thing is, the course is probably going to be at its most receptive today, after some showers yesterday. Winds today will dry it out, and then it’s mainly sunny for the rest of the week. On Sky’s coverage last night, Butch Harmon aired concerns that, come Sunday, the farcical scenes on the 7th green in 2004 might play out again, despite the USGA insisting the course is playing softer. Let’s see how this pans out, then.
It’s probably fair to say that nobody is going to be winning at -16 this year. Pars, never mind low scores, will come at a premium this week. You can’t take liberties around these greens, as Scott Stallings has just discovered: having failed to extricate himself from a swale at 14, he’s run up a quintuple-bogey 9. Meanwhile spare a thought for poor Scott Gregory; having come through qualifying at Walton Heath to reach his first major championship as a pro, the 2016 Amateur Championship winner has just played his last five holes thus: bogey-triple-double-double-bogey. The man from Portsmouth, Hampshire undone in Southampton, NY. Both of the Scotts prop up the leader board at +8.
“Are you kidding me, dude?” Disaster for Jordan Spieth at 11. His bunker shot is way too aggressive: he cries in anguish as it flies past the pin, tucked near the back, and topples down the bank. Then his chip up comes back to his feet. His second attempt, a lob this time, very nearly topples back too - Spieth waits for it to come to him - but it somehow stops. Spieth runs up, quickly grabs his putter, and runs his double-bogey putt six feet past. He does very well to knock that one in for a triple-bogey six. Meanwhile Mickelson gets up and down to save his par, but McIlroy’s putt from eight feet lips out. Not sure how that didn’t drop, but that’s a bogey. So, then, this morning’s marquee group after two holes: Mickelson +1, McIlroy +1, Spieth +4.
And now all three find sand with their tee shots at the par-three 11th. It’s not the worst miss - that would be going over the back - but they’re faced with testing up and downs nonetheless. In the group ahead, Patrick Reed’s hot major-championship form continues apace, the Masters champion having knocked his tee shot at 11 to 20 feet and rolled in the birdie putt. He’s now got a share of the early lead with Aaron Baddeley at -2. And joining the group at -1: Beef! Andrew Johnson creams his second at 1 from 140 yards to 12 feet, and tidies up for birdie.
Mickelson can only bump his chip up onto the fringe. He fails to make the 15-footer he leaves himself, and that’s a far from ideal start in the quest for that elusive major. Also carding an opening-hole bogey: Spieth, who knocks his long birdie putt to six feet, then pushes his short par effort right. His putter has been cold for a while, so that doesn’t bode well either. McIlroy fails to take advantage of his birdie chance, so that’s a far from stellar start by this marquee group.
Mickelson’s approach lands near the flag, but rolls with purpose off the back of the green and down a swale. He’s a long way down, and there’s not much green to work with once he’s back up on top; the pin’s towards the rear of the green. Spieth, perhaps a little spooked, leaves his second well short of the flag, the ball only just staying on the green. A long putt awaits. Finally McIlroy proves it’s not impossible to hold these greens, landing his ball softly 12 feet from the flag to set up a birdie chance. Elsewhere, Aaron Baddeley’s quick start continues with birdie at 12; he’s the very early sole leader at -2. And the Masters champion Patrick Reed, ahead of the McIlroy-Spieth-Mickelson group, birdied 10 to join Grace and Koepka at -1. This’d be a fine leader board on Sunday afternoon, never mind Tuesday morning!
-2: Baddeley (3*)-1: Koepka (2), Grace (2*), Reed (1*)
So we’ll be concentrating this morning - no apologies - on a stellar group. It stars the 2011 champion Rory McIlroy, the 2015 winner Jordan Spieth, and the six-time runner-up Phil Mickelson. One of Lefty’s many near misses came here in 2004, when Retief Goosen kept rolling them in on treacherous greens, and Mickelson three putted from close range on 17. Could this be a fairytale end to his long quest for the career slam? He was chomping at the bit, waiting for Spieth to get on with his opening tee shot at 10, springing forward the nanosecond the Open champion’s iron met with the ball. He wants this all right. Anyway, all three of them have cracked irons down the hill and have found the fairway. All good so far.
Here we go, then, folks ... it’s the biggest event in world sport that’s kicking off today! That’s right, isn’t it? So let’s start, appropriately, with the reigning champion Brooks Koepka, who has drained a 40-footer on the 1st to start the defence of his title in perfect fashion! He’s one of three men under par in these extremely early stages, the others being Aaron Baddeley and Branden ‘62’ Grace, who both picked up a shot at 10. It’s on!
-1: Baddeley (2*), Koepka (1), Grace (1*)
We’re due a good US Open. Brooks Koepka was a worthy champion last year at Erin Hills – he tied the championship scoring record, for goodness sake - but there wasn’t much in the way of drama as he turned the back nine on Sunday into a procession. Dustin Johnson’s victory at Oakmont in 2016 was another stroll, one mainly remembered these days for rulebook farce. Jordan Spieth’s win the year before was super exciting over the closing stretch, as he seized the day while Johnson and Branden Grace stumbled, but the quirky set-up of Chambers Bay means that tournament won’t be recalled fondly by the purists. And at Pinehurst in 2014, Martin Kaymer wasted the field pretty much from the get-go. You have to go back to Merion in 2013, when Justin Rose eased his way past Phil Mickelson and made his way down 18 like Ben Hogan, for a no-quibble classic.
(Actually, on reflection, it’s daft to write off 2015 just because the course was a bit psychedelic. Spieth’s birdie on 18 was astonishing in the circumstances, bouncing back from a double on 17, while Johnson and Grace capitulated in extremely memorable fashion. Also, Louis Oosthuizen came back in 29! But I’ve written the opening paragraph of this preamble now, and there’s no going back. You get the general point.)Continue reading...