Graeme McDowell was something of a wet blanket. The first round of the U.S. Open at Pebble Beach had turned into a party, a free and easy birdie-fest, and here was McDowell grousing in the background, “Careful what you wish for … I think we’re going to see it, come the weekend. I don’t think level par wins this week.” McDowell won the previous U.S. Open at Pebble in 2010 when he made only one birdie in the final round and nobody broke par for the week. This time it was a celebration of scoring, and despite his flawless two-birdie 69, he was warning everyone that Pebble would strike back.
Even the mild-mannered Justin Rose, the 2013 U.S. Open champ, was a bit subdued despite taking the first-round lead with a six-under 65. This was, after all, the celebrated Pebble Beach and 39 players had broken the par of 71, and 27 of them shot in the 60s. There were 17 eagles, the record for any U.S. Open round. Rose had come to a dramatic moment at Pebble’s famed par-five 18th, as the daylight was softening. He had birdied 16 and 17 and now faced a 12-foot putt for a birdie that would give him a one-shot lead and also tie the U.S. Open record at Pebble, 65, set by Tiger Woods in his victory in 2000. The quietly resolute Rose rolled it home. His celebration was a reserved fist pump. “I wouldn’t say it was exhilarating,” Rose said, “because I feel like my mindset is, I am in a 72-hole tournament.”
Meaning it was only the first round. And players were getting birdies in bunches. Rose was just a shot ahead of three others at 66. Xander Schauffele got a near-miracle bounce off a rock at the left side of the ocean-hugging 18th, then put his approach to 12 feet and made the eagle. Louis Oosthuizen sank his wedge approach for an eagle at his second hole, the par-four 11th, and finished his round by holing out a bunker shot for birdie at his last, No. 9. And Aaron Wise bogeyed his first hole and made six birdies the rest of the way, and offered an assessment of the course: Soft greens, gentler rough and overall “just a little bit softer than what I would imagine a normal USGA event being.”
The fans were marveling at the scoring, but their eyes were on two history-seekers — Tiger Woods and two-time defending champion Brooks Koepka. Woods was one win away from tying Sam Snead’s record of 82 career tour victories, and his career-reviving win in the Masters just two months earlier, his 15th major, left him three behind Jack Nicklaus’s record 18. And Woods opened his quest with one of the strangest cards of his career. From No. 4, he went birdie-double bogey-birdie-birdie and parred all the others for a one-under 70. Said Woods: “Pebble Beach — you have the first seven to get it going, and after that, it’s a fight.”
Koepka was going after his third straight U.S. Open, and no one had won three straight since Willie Anderson in 1903-04-05. Koepka seemed zeroed in, with four birdies through No. 6, then stumbled much of the way home to a 69. “I’m actually quite pleased,” he said. “I don’t know how many fairways I hit from No. 8 on in — I didn’t hit many,” he said. “And didn’t hit many greens. I’m pretty pleased. I didn’t shoot myself out of it.”
The threats came, and they went. Scott Piercy, for one, when he went to five under in four holes from No. 2, with three birdies and an eagle at No. 6. Then a double bogey at the eighth cooled him. He shot 67. “Four under the first round of the U.S. Open,” Piercy said, “I’ll take that every time.”
Rory McIlroy, with a 68, had his first sub-70 round in a U.S. Open since he won at Congressional in 2011. “It’s a very soft start to a U.S. Open,” he said. “Which is a good thing.”
Under the circumstances, Gary Woodland had a rather unremarkable day. He birdied Nos. 4, 5, 6 and 8, bogeyed the ninth, and parred his way home for a three-under 68, in a pack tied for eighth.
The frolic in first round averaged 72.679, nearly 2.5 strokes lower than the first round in both the 2000 and 2010 U.S. Opens at Pebble Beach. And one golfer did not have a conventional day.
Denmark’s Lucas Bjerregaard, known for beating Tiger Woods in the WGC – Dell Match Play in March, was living his dream playing in the U.S. Open at Pebble Beach. He’d started at No. 10 in the first round and after three bogeys was three over coming to the 18th. He hit his first tee shot wide left into Stillwater Cove, hit his second there, too, then, overcorrecting, he hit his third wide right inland, out of bounds. He switched to his three wood, finally reached the green, and made an 11. Along the way, he hurled his driver over the cliff and into the ocean. He shot 80. Said Bjerregaard, “It’s a course where you have to limit your mistakes. You can’t afford to be making 11s.”
First-round leaders: Justin Rose 65, Rickie Fowler 66, Louis Oosthuizen 66, Xander Schauffele 66, Aaron Wise 66, Nate Lashley 67, Scott Piercy 67.