Winged Foot turns tame as 21 players dip under par on U.S. Open's first day

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MAMARONECK, N.Y. — The USGA promised to let Winged Foot be Winged Foot. Maybe they were talking about the East Course.

Between accessible pins, calm conditions and overcast skies that kept moisture in the greens, Thursday’s opening round of the U.S. Open was a relative birdie fest compared to the expectations everyone had coming in.

If they didn’t massacre the course, they left it bleeding.

Justin Thomas became the sixth player in history to shoot 65 at a Winged Foot Open and he wasn’t the only one turning the leaderboard red. There were 12 rounds under par the entire week when the Open was last held here 14 years ago. There were 21 Thursday and the afternoon wave took it just as low.

Thomas goes into Friday with just a one-shot lead on Patrick Reed, who aced the seventh hole en route to a 66, Thomas Pieters (who recently recovered from COVID-19) and Matthew Wolff, who was in one of the last groups of the day.

New dad Rory McIlroy turned it into Fathers Day when he revived his game with a 67, joined by Lee Westwood and 2010 British Open champ Louis Oosthuizen.

Most of the big names that were expected to be up there are within immediate striking distance, with the exception of World No. 1 Dustin Johnson, who shot 3-over while struggling on the greens. So it’s no fluke. They simply took advantage, starting with Thomas. He said he was having fun during the practice rounds. He had a blast Thursday.

“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.”

Thomas, ranked No. 1 in the world earlier this year, hit nine of 14 fairways and rediscovered a putting touch that had deserted him lately, with 28 putts, six for birdies.

“It’s still Winged Foot. You’ve still got to hit the shots,” he said. “That kind of was my game plan going into the week is that … 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, and that’s exactly what we did today.”

Reed really got his round going on the 166-yard seventh where he drew a “90 percent” 9-iron into the green and, through the haze, saw it two-hop into the hole.

Reed could only imagine the reaction had there been a gallery.

“It would have been nuts,” he said. “Up here in New York, the fans are amazing.”

Reed could be well positioned even if things get tougher.

“I love hard golf courses,” he said. “I think it separates the top golfers compared to the rest of the field. Also I think it separates the guys that can use creativity and can handle adversity. Out there you’re going to hit some quality golf shots that are either going to have a bad bounce, end bad up in a bad spot, or going to land on the green, catch a ridge, go down. How do you react to that, handle do you it.

“I’m a grinder … When you’re playing well and hitting the ball well, you’re going to shoot low numbers. It’s when you’re not. And I feel like I’m able to kind of (play) a scrappy type of golf, able to kind of get it around and get the job done whenever things aren’t going my way.”

Of course, everyone expects the USGA to, as Justin Rose said, “crank” the course up. He noted that Thursday’s pins were “a little bit Augusta-like. When you hit the right shot at the right time, it’s going to move towards the pin.”

But the USGA can’t control the weather. This isn’t June and the sun isn’t going to bake the course hard and firm. It needs some wind. For now, the one defense the course has is its snarly, sticky rough. It may need more than that to become Winged Foot again.

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