Rory McIlroy muscled his way straight into contention with a three-under 67 but again it was a round that could’ve been on day one of the U.S. Open at Winged Foot.
McIlroy was in the opulent clubhouse at lunch two shots behind fellow PGA champion, Justin Thomas who grabbed six birdies in a five-under par 65 in the cool morning and benign conditions on New York’s Long Island.
Patrick Reed, with only a second hole-in-one in his career, posted a 66 to be in second place at four-under par.
McIlroy’s round was a mix of three outward nine birdies before a 10th hole bogey, a par on 11 and then a birdie on 12 ahead of six closing pars.
“I had a really good start in playing the par-3s really well, and played those in 3-under for the day,” he said.
“I also drove the ball better. I put the ball in play much more today than I have done in the previous few weeks. That bodes well.
“Hopefully I can keep that going over the next three days, and that’s what you need to do around here, just keep it in the short stuff, and then the greens are still receptive enough where you can give yourself some chances.
“I took a couple of my chances today. 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.”
Moments ahead of teeing off, Paul McGinley had been commentating on SKY that McIlroy was not on his game and he did not ‘fancy’ his chances this week.
McIlroy responded with a first hole birdie a few minutes later in holing a great 20-footer at the par-3 10th.
McIlroy shaved the hole at the next before moving to two-under and into the lead as the last of the 72 morning players teed off, in holing an 11-footer for birdie at the par-3 13th.
The new dad then parred his next three holes and was on the 15th fairway when Patrick Reed, wearing a white cap, blue shirt and red trousers, holed out for an ace at the par-3 seventh hole.
Not that you would have known given the no-spectator policy in place, with Reed simply walking over to his playing partners and caddies for a round of ‘knuckles’.
The absence of the noisiest spectators in golf cost Reed’s player partner, Jordan Spieth a lost ball at his second hole despite organisers the USGA arranging for an additional 25 ‘ball spotters’ to boost the number to 425.
Spieth, winner of the 2015 U.S. Open but without a win since the Open Championship in 2017, had bogeyed the first and now after his double on two was three-over. However, Spieth superbly regrouped to birdie three in succession from the fourth but then slipped to eventually finish with a three-over 73.
McIlroy’s decent driving display continued hitting a fifth of seven outward nine fairways at the 18th or the ninth hole of his round, and then finding the green and holing out from 32-feet for a third birdie of his round to get to three-under.
There was a first and only bogey in three-putting his 10th hole from close to 40-feet though McIlroy got the shot back sinking a seven-footer at the par-3 third hole or the 12th of his round.
McIlroy drove the green at the 329-yard par-4 sixth, his 15th hole leaving himself 40-feet for eagle to then the lead but in missing the putt he horribly also failed to hole his four-footer for birdie.
It was McIlroy’s third straight par and he then doubled that number to end with his 67 in a round that should have been lower as he hit nine of 14 fairways and then missed just three of 18 greens in regulation.
“I started this tournament last year decently in shooting a 68 at Pebble on the first day last year, so I’ve gotten off to decent starts,” he said.
“At a U.S. Open, if you can get off to a good start, you’re not chasing as much. And when you chase on U.S. Open golf courses, that’s when you can start to make mistakes and compound your errors.
“To have that sort of cushion, to be a little bit more relaxed about your play, not take on too much, be able to still play conservative golf, I think that’s important here.
“So, having shot a 67, it gives me a little more confidence in my game, maybe a little more commitment with my swing off the tee, not guiding it as much, really being able to free-flow and make good, committed swings.
“Hopefully that sets me up to do that over the next few days.”
Graeme McDowell, like McIlroy, found himself introduced on the first tee as the 2010 U.S. Open winner but it proved a real roller-coaster round of six-over par 76.
McDowell, among some 15 to have teed-up in the 2006 U.S. Open, produced a round that was five shots more than his 71 on day one of the 14-years ago at Winged Foot.
He was virtually playing catch-up in doubling the fourth hole and while he got back to one-over at the turn, McDowell then dropped three shots in four holes from the 11th hole to be then just inside the top-60 as the afternoon half of the field was teeing-off.
McDowell then bogeyed 14 and his 16th and 17th holes and headed to the clubhouse just outside the top-100 with American Ryan Vermeer then in last place nine-over.
“I just kind of hung in there well the front nine, kind of had it 1-over, birdied 9, hit a great shot on 10 to 12 feet, kind of missed that, and made a bogey with a wedge in my hand on 11, and then just couldn’t get it in the fairway after that,” he said.
“I missed the 12th fairway, I missed the 14th fairway, I missed the 15th fairway, I missed the 16th fairway, missed the 17th fairway.
“I made the mistakes that you just can’t make out here really, which is not getting the ball in play off the tee. I’ve got a lot of work to do tomorrow.
“The golf course was kind of there for the taking as far as Winged Foot was going to be there for the taking this morning, but like I say, just kind of reset and try and get back out there tomorrow, see if I can’t sneak in for the weekend and do a little damage on the weekend.
“Saying that, I certainly can’t stand here and blame the golf course in any way, shape or form this morning.
“It was certainly down to just the fact that I did not drive the ball well, and like I say, I’ve got a bit of work to do between now and tomorrow, but I’m upbeat about a lot of the things that I’m doing and I’ve just got to try and keep pushing forward.”
Open champ Shane Lowry and last year’s British Amateur winner, James Sugrue were out in the afternoon half of the draw.
Full scoring HERE