US Open sees red in Round 1. Will Winged Foot strike back?

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Associated Press

Justin Thomas, of the United States, and Tiger Woods, of the United States, walk off the second tee during the first round of the US Open Golf Championship, Thursday, Sept. 17, 2020, in Mamaroneck, N.Y. (AP Photo/John Minchillo)

We knew we were in for a treat when Zach Johnson’s birdie putt at No. 1 blew six feet past the flagstick before it gave into gravity, turned 180 degrees and lazily dunked itself. Because you rarely see shots like that outside of miniature golf courses.

But that’s a U.S. Open at Winged Foot for you: 7,400-plus yards of slimmed down fairways, flanked by three-months-gnarlier-than-usual rough and a handful of greens that could be covered overnight with asphalt and converted into serviceable skateboard parks by morning.

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Not coincidentally, the big question heading into Round 1 was whether the century-old course would prove too tough even for the world’s best golfers. The short answer is not yet. The question coming out of it is how much tougher the U.S. Golf Association will get to stop another explosion of red numbers across the leaderboard like we saw Thursday.

In five previous Opens played at Winged Foot, only two players have ever finished the tournament under par. But a total of 21 limboed under that bar on opening day, led by one of the golfers who worried most about being embarrassed and responded with one of the best rounds of his life.

That would be Justin Thomas, whose 65 left him one shot ahead of Patrick Reed, Thomas Pieters and Matthew Wolff, and two clear of another pursuing trio led by Rory McIlroy. Thomas did it the old-fashioned way, hitting fairways (9 of 14, plus three other tee shots that settled into the relatively benign first cut of rough) and greens (14 of 18) and making everything he looked at from 5 feet in (12 of 12).

“It’s helpful with three days left, but it’s not even remotely close to being over,” Thomas said. “As great of a round and fun as it was, it’s over with now, and I need to get over it.”

No kidding. There was just enough carnage — of the golfing variety — justify Thomas’ worries, and fans who get a kick out of watching escape shots get wedged in trees or delicate chips that roll back to a golfer’s shoes have a weekend’s worth of material already.

Tiger Woods provided some of that at the end of an up-and-down day, bogeying 17 and doubling 18 after a failed flop shot rolled off a steep shelf fronting the final green.

“I did not finish off the round like I needed to,” Woods said a half-dozen times afterward.

Still, his 3-over 73 must have looked good to Phil Mickelson, the game’s other fast-aging superstar who shot 79 and finished the round only because he had to.

“I’m so sick of this,” Mickelson said, doubled over after his 5-wood from the ninth fairway turned so far left that it landed on the first tee box.

A few of the game’s younger stars felt the same way. Dustin Johnson, who finished 30 under to win the Northern Trust just last month and came in as the betting favorite, shot 73. So did Jordan Spieth and Daniel Berger. Defending champ Gary Woodland opened with a 74, joined by Englishmen Tommy Fleetwood and Matthew Fitzpatrick. Just-minted major champion Collin Morikawa shot 76.

All of them know the USGA is crunching those numbers, trying to balance the need to get players on and off the course while working with two less hours of sunshine — a consequence of moving the Open back from its traditional spot on the calendar in June. None of them expect the set-up to get any easier going forward, especially after Woodland took advantage of calm weather at Pebble Beach last year to post a winning score of 13 under.

We’ll find out whether, and how much, the USGA feels stung by the assault on par beginning with Round 2. Even if the weather refuses to cooperate, a few strategically misplaced water hoses could translate into faster fairways and firmer greens. And there’s plenty of spots left on those fast greens where a clown’s mouth would actually be a welcome distraction.

“The pins are, for the most part, is easier locations than they will be,” said Spieth. “They certainly were looking to have the lowest scores (in the first round), given the conditions that we have as well.

“But as the course firms up and the pins get thrown in other places,” he added, “under par is going to be a phenomenal score.”

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