Russell Henley’s visit to the rough-and-tumble South course at Torrey Pines went a lot better Thursday than the last time he played, especially under the circumstances.
Anything around par never hurts in a U.S. Open. He opened with a 4-under 67, finishing just as the wind off the Pacific was kicking into gear.
“If it’s blowing like this the whole week, it’s just going to be a hard week. That’s kind of what you want in a U.S. Open, though, right?” Henley said.
Henley got up-and-down by holing a 6-foot birdie putt on the par-5 18th hole for a one-shot lead over Francesco Molinari and Rafa Cabrera Bello among early starters.
Two-time U.S. Open champion Brooks Koepka, looking tough as ever in the strongest events, and San Diego native Xander Schauffele were at 69.
A 90-minute fog delay before the opening tee shot meant the first round had no chance of being completed until Friday morning.
The difference between Torrey Pines for a PGA Tour stop in January and Torrey for the toughest test in golf? Henley couldn’t say. He has only played the Farmers Insurance Open one time, in 2014, and it was memorable for the wrong reasons. He holed a 40-foot shot on the 18th hole for birdie to break 80.
That’s about all he remembers except for “leaving the course feeling like I just got beat up.”
There was plenty of bruising going on Thursday in the U.S. Open.
Former U.S. Open champion Webb Simpson had to birdie the last hole to break 80. Max Homa four-putted from 20 feet for triple bogey on No. 12 and three-putted for double bogey on No. 14. That led to a 76.
PGA champion Phil Mickelson, who turned 51 on Wednesday, shot a 75 on Thursday. That’s not the start he hoped for in his bid to finally get a U.S. Open title for the career Grand Slam. What bothered him were two soft bogeys toward the end of his round.
“Look, it’s part of this tournament, and I was able to go without any doubles. I just didn’t make enough birdies to offset it,” Mickelson said.
Defending champion Bryson DeChambeau, world No. 1 Dustin Johnson and Jon Rahm were among those playing in the afternoon.
There were a few cheers for “Bryson” directed at Koepka as fans tried to keep their feud going, though Koepka didn’t appear to be the least bit distracted. This is a major, and he showed why he’s called “Big Game Brooks” when the biggest tournaments roll around.
For so much of the day, Koepka made it look easy by keeping it in the short grass, off the tee and on the green. He was bogey-free and 4 under through 11 holes when he missed the green on the par-3 third and made bogey, and he dropped another shot from on the sixth, which has been converted to a par 4 for the U.S. Open.
Even so, it was a solid start for Koepka, a four-time major champion coming off a runner-up finish to Mickelson at the PGA Championship. It wasn’t easy. He made it sound that way.
“It’s pretty simple. It’s a lot simpler than what guys make it,” Koepka said. “I think a lot of guys make it more difficult than it needs to be. Just got to understand where the flag is, what you’re doing and where to miss it.”
The surprise might have been Molinari, the former British Open champion who has not been the same since losing a two-shot lead on the back nine at the Masters two years ago that paved the way for Tiger Woods slipping on another green jacket.
The Italian had to pull out of the PGA Championship with a sore back. He mentioned other nagging injuries. He’s had three top 10s this year. He also has missed the cut in three of the last four tournaments he played. But he was solid at Torrey, and two birdies over his last three allowed him to match his best start in a U.S. Open.
“There’s no tricks. You need to grind and fight for 18 holes and then relax until tomorrow and start over again,” he said. “I haven’t played recently, so it’s nice to get off to a good start, but there’s a long way to go. Start over tomorrow like nothing happened today.”
Henley was among three players from the early draw who reached 4 under at some point, and the only player who stayed there thanks to his birdie at the end.
Koepka played his final seven holes with two bogeys, no birdies and no complaints. Patrick Rodgers was 4 under with five holes to play until he dropped three shots coming in. That didn’t rattle him too much, either.
“I really felt like I played decently coming in, but just playing a U.S. Open, you’re sometimes a bounce away or a lip-out away from a tough hole or a tough situation,” Rodgers said. “That’s just part of this event.”