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U.S. Open 2017: Golf world’s biggest stars struggle and nine Round 1 thoughts

ERIN, Wis. — If you want a summary of the first day of the 2017 U.S. Open, here it is: There were as many amateurs under par on the day (2) as there were top 10 golfers in the world. 

Texas Longhorn Scottie Scheffler shot a 3-under 69, and Texas A&M Aggie Cameron Champ posted a 2-under 70. The best the OWGR top 10 could do was Rickie Fowler (1st, -7) and Sergio Garcia (T19, -2). The rest of that top 10 was a combined 26 over. What in the world?!

It all happened for different reasons, too. Dustin Johnson (T102, +3) couldn’t hit a fairway. Neither could Rory McIlroy (T143, +6). Jon Rahm (T114, +4) was kicking his bag all over Erin Hills. Henrik Stenson (T82, +2) went out in 40. Hideki Matsuyama (T82, +2) needed an eagle hole-out to shoot something respectable. Jason Day (T151, +7) nearly finished last in the field. The whole thing was a mess except for Fowler and Garcia.

“We might have a pillow fight putting contest, just to see if we can spark anything,” joked Jordan Spieth (T61, +1) of his pairing with Johnson. “But, yeah, it was just off with putter and he had one bad hole. Yeah, I played a lot of golf with him and have seen him at his best. And everybody has off days one way or another.”

Spieth, incredibly, hit 13-of-14 fairways and couldn’t throw it in the ocean on the greens. Johnson only hit 11-of-18 greens in regulation, so his 75 was actually probably decent considering how penal the rough is at this course.

Add it all up and we get a leaderboard that is strong but not star-studded other than Fowler, who leads by one over Paul Casey and Xander Schauffele (more on that in a second).

U.S. Open leaderboards, especially early on in the week, are almost always quirky. But this is bizarre even for this tournament. On a new, unknown track that values hitting tons of fairways and greens, it seems the balance of power would tilt towards the best in the world. This is not the type of tournament that levels the playing field. It is the type of tournament that produces historic, elite winners.

And yet, we’re looking at a Friday in which 80 percent of the 10 best players on the planet will be on cut watch. That’s bad news for them and bad news for the tournament … but tremendous news for your Round 1 leader.

1. Rickie Fowler’s 65 was historic: The 7-under 65 from Fowler early on Friday for the first-round lead tied the best score to par in U.S. Open history (Jack Nicklaus and Tom Weiskopf in 1980 at Baltusrol), and the scary part is that it could have been even better. 

All of a sudden this is Fowler’s tournament to lose with nobody in the world top 10 within four strokes of him. Can he run out in front like Martin Kaymer did in 2014 to his first major championship? He could, but I don’t think he will. This course is going to get nasty over the next 54 holes, and Fowler is going to have to brawl for his first big one.

Still, if he drives it like he did on Thursday (12-of-14 fairways), he’ll be there until the very end on Sunday afternoon.

2. There were 44 golfers under par in Round 1: In the last three U.S. Opens, there have been 50 golfers under par after the first round … combined. This broke the previous record of 39. It will be interesting to see if the USGA takes this as an affront and lights them up the rest of the week or if the scores actually stay steady or, gulp, even get better from here. 

3. Fairway accuracy was paramount: Of the golfers in the top 10 on the leaderboard, only Marc Leishman hit fewer than 10 fairways on the day. It was accuracy (and not distance) that separated those who played great from those who did not. That shouldn’t be super surprising considering how long the rough around Erin Hills is this week.

4. Paul Casey lurks: Maybe the most interesting player currently in the top 10 other than Fowler is Casey, who dropped a filthy little 66 late on Thursday afternoon that included an eagle and six birdies (along with two bogeys). Fox dropped a great stat that nobody has more top-5 finishes (11) than Casey since the 2014-15 season started without a win. He only has one PGA Tour win in his career and no top 10s since 2007 so this would be unexpected to say the least. 

5. All the hole-outs: It seemed that there were an inordinate number of hole-outs on Thursday. Here is a collection of them all.

6. First-time major champions: It would appear that for the seventh consecutive major championship, we’re going to get a first-time winner. The closest former major champs on the leaderboard after the first round are Jim Furyk, Sergio Garcia and Ernie Els at T18. Nobody else in the top 28 has one.

7. Ernie Els throws it back: Speaking of the Big Easy, he’s playing in what will likely be his final U.S. Open this year after playing his final Masters in April. Els, 47, shot a 2-under 70 on Thursday and is just five back of the lead. It would be a pretty sweet story if he was able to sneak into next year’s tournament at Shinnecock as well.

“I felt good from the moment I walked through the gates here and on the course,” said Els. “I look over and it almost looks like a British Open Championship in a way. The crowd are happy to see us here. It’s the first-time U.S. Open site, so there are a lot of positives out there, and I’m trying to feed off of that.”

“It’s not really on my mind,” he added of trying to qualify for 2018. “I’d love to have a chance to, to be honest with you. I think if it’s top 10, I think a top 10 gets you in, and that’s great. But like I said at the Masters, 23 there, 25 here, you know, it would be nice to keep going, but if not, it’s also fine. I’ve had a good time. Thank you.”

8. Phil Mickelson’s big miss: In retrospect, I don’t think Mickelson would have played well this week, especially when you consider the fairway accuracy stat above (not exactly Lefty’s forte!). But it was still odd to not see him in attendance at the tournament on Thursday. His arrival to an event always invokes a buzz. On a Thursday in which the air was let out of most of the best players in the world, this is a tournament that could have used it.

9. Who and what wins it? In each of the last three years, the eventual winner of this tournament has been in the top 10 and within three strokes of the lead.  I’ll take Fowler because he (easily) packs the most punch of anybody on that list. He had a look after his round that had “this one’s mine” written all over it. I think he gets it at the exact number he shot on Thursday, 7 under.

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