The opening groups of the U.S. Open were handed, almost inadvertently, what should have been a huge advantage. Faced with a course that was already somewhere past firm and headed toward slate, and absent the rain expected overnight, the USGA decided to splash a little water on the greens at Pinehurst No. 2 early Thursday morning.
It didn’t take the groups long to figure out it wasn’t the same course they saw Wednesday afternoon. Henrik Norlander was in the first group off the 10th tee not too long after sunrise.
“I was prepared for the toughest I would ever see because that’s how it felt (Wednesday), it was so firm,” Norlander said. “I hit an 8-iron into 10 and it actually checked up a little bit on me. So I realized pretty quick they put some water on it and it played a little easier.”
“Maybe they got a few complaints with how firm it was Tuesday, Wednesday, or maybe just concern,” Webb Simpson said. “So the greens were much softer, a good amount slower, but it was set up great.”
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“What we saw this morning is probably the most scorable it will be all week,” Rory McIlroy said.
So those morning groups clearly pressed their advantage and staked out unassailable first-day positions on the leader board, right?
It didn’t make much of a difference at all. The course is just too tough for such fine margins to matter, even with some vulnerable pins and generously placed tees, shortening the devious par-5 5th most notably.
Only 15 players broke par. Eight played in the morning, seven played in the afternoon. The runaway leader at 5-under, Martin Kaymer, didn’t finish until the sun was on its way back down over the village.
“I got asked yesterday what score I would take for the whole week and I said 8-over par, so hopefully that’s not going to happen,” Kaymer said. “Because the golf course, I thought, played a little more difficult on Monday, Tuesday and Wednesday. They must have put a little more water on the greens last night. I thought it was very playable.”
Kaymer’s 65 was the lowest score posted in any of the nine U.S. Open rounds played at Pinehurst so far. No one else was any closer than 2-under on a day most players thought turned out less difficult than expected.
That’s how well Kaymer played and that’s how hard No. 2 played on Thursday. It’s only going to get harder. There are tougher hole locations available, another 200 yards in reserve.
“You feel like they’re kind of throwing something out there for us that’s somewhere in the middle, toward a little bit easier, see what they get back,” Henrik Stenson said. “And then you can tweak it from there on. If it’s too many red numbers, it’s going to be a little harder tomorrow.”
Whatever advantage the early groups had was quickly neutralized as the fog cleared and the clouds broke and the temperature jumped 20 degrees in the time it takes Jim Furyk to line up a putt. The sun baked the course to an immediate crisp – maybe not all the way back to where it was Wednesday, but close enough.
“You could feel it in your feet walking around the greens,” Jordan Spieth said. “It was amazing.”
So Brandt Snedeker’s 4-under 31 on the front nine ballooned into a 3-over 38 on the back. Matt Kuchar’s 3-under 32 was followed by 2-over 37. And so on.
“They’re not going to let it get easy again,” Brendon Todd said.
Wait, that was easy? Only by the standards of the U.S. Open. Pinehurst undoubtedly has more danger lurking.