Two-time U.S. Open Champion Brooka Koepka started hot early, but then came back to the field late, surrendering an early lead as the first round of the 121st U.S. Open golf championship got underway. Koepka finished tied for third with a 2-under 69 after opening with four birdies in his first 11 holes at Torrey Pines’ South Course. As we go to press, Koepka stands two shots behind current leaders Russell Henley and Louis Oosthuizen and one behind Italy’s Francesco Molinari and Spain’s Rafa Cabrera Bello. Three other players also finished the day at 2-under. The first round was delayed by an hour and half by a marine layer and later by darkness, requiring a handful of players to finish their first round early this morning, including co-leader Oosthuizen, who has two holes to play.
Koepka appeared in control of his game much like the opening round of the 2019 PGA Championship at Bethpage Black where he opened with a bogey-free 63 en route to winning the Wanamaker Trophy and his fourth major championship in a laugher. Starting on the back nine, he birdied the 508-yard 12th, the most difficult hole on the course during the 2008 U.S. Open, with a driver and a 9-iron to eight feet.
I’ll pause while you clean the coffee off your laptop keyboard. 508 yards…driver 9-iron.
Back-to-back birdies at 17 and 18, (considered by many to be the soft underbelly of the golf course), followed, vaulting Koepka into a tie for the lead. Another birdie at the short par-4 second, his third in four holes, put him alone atop, the leaderboard, but the tiny par-3 third hole, Koepka’s 12th of the day, derailed his clean card. He hit a pull-hook that was dead left all the way and ended up in an playable lie in the canyon scrub.
“I gave one away. That was probably the worst swing, club choice, I don’t know what it was,” he lamented sourly. “You’ve got to miss that right of the flag. That ball started off 15 yards left and was drawing and the wind is off the right so it was never going to be any good.”
The bogey seemed to unnerve the normally unflappable Koepka who staggered home somewhat clumsily. A slice off the seventh tee into the rough triggered another bogey as Koepka could not get up and down from short of the green, stubbing chip in the process. At the par-3 eighth, Koepka again pulled his tee shot, and subsequently played a chip shot with his feet planted firmly inside a bunker, while the ball clung precipitously above his feet in, perhaps, the worst hanging lie Torrey doled out to any player all day. He saved par, sinking a testy six foot putt, but his mere par-5 at the ninth, his final hole of the day, was precipitated by yet another weak pull.
“making the turn, I thought the wind picked up a lot. You’ve got a lot of crosswinds out here, so you’ve got to be able to drive it well, and put it in the fairway. It makes it a lot tougher with the crosswinds,” Koepka stated. “I’m not very pleased with the way I drove the ball on the back nine. Everything just kind of leaked a little right, and then I over-adjusted on seven and hit it left.”
Still Koepka, who himself admits he’s “months ahead” of where almost any other person, athlete or no, would be along in their recovery from knee surgery, seems confident.
“It shouldn’t be too difficult to just go figure it out: whether it might be alignment, ball position, usually something pretty simple,” he snorted airily. “Look, you’re going to make mistakes out here; you can’t make double bogeys. If you can limit those to just bogeys, you’re going to be all right.”
Koepka’s analysis usually makes sense; patience above all wins U.S. Opens. Yet because it’s a regular Tour stop, Torrey’s familiarity to the players, should allow for more mercurial scores, particularly earlier in the tournament. Co-leader Russell Hanley balanced five birdies against three bogeys over the course of his round. Oosthuizen rattled off three consecutive birdies at 16, 17, and 18, and – much as the USGA hoped – the short par-5 18th surrendered seven eagles, including one by Cabrera Bello with a 100 foot pitch and run.
As we go to press, 23 players are under par for the day, and another 17 posted even par, but as the tournament progresses, Torrey Pines will get faster and firmer. The scoring average yesterday was a reasonable 73.7, with the back nine playing close to a full stroke harder than the front. (37.23 for the inward nine, to 36.48 for the outward loop.)
“I feel confident in my game, and I feel like the firmer fairways is definitely helping me have some shorter clubs into these holes. Hopefully I can just keep it going,” Henley noted. I don’t know if it’s going to firm up and get baked out or stay receptive on the greens, but 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?”
Yes, but at a U.S. Open be careful what you wish for. You sometimes get it in avalanches.