U.S. Open 2018: Dustin Johnson looking strong as stars fade, plus nine thoughts from Round 1
D.J. is really the only 'star' that showed up Thursday out of the top 10 players in the world
SOUTHAMPTION, N.Y. -- Dustin Johnson shot a 1-under 69 in Round 1 of the 2018 U.S. Open, which was seven strokes better than the field average and good enough to share the lead. Joining him atop the leaderboard after 18 holes of play at Shinnecock Hills Golf Club are Scott Piercy, Russell Henley and Ian Poulter.
Johnson shot a semi-wild 33 on the front nine (see more below) before closing with a 1-over 36 on the back for the 69. It might not look like much, but on a day when conditions combined with some mega-tucked pins, Johnson's 1-under score is stout. Even more so given that, you know, he's the No. 1 player in the world.
"I'm very pleased with the round," said Johnson. "Anything under par on this golf course is very good, especially in the conditions we have today. I felt like, you know, from start to finish, it was very difficult."
Just as every Masters runs through Jordan Spieth, I believe every U.S. Open runs through D.J. He seems to possess whatever clandestine quality it is that a golfer needs to win major championships and slay courses the magnitude of Oakmont (2016) and Shinnecock (2018). He does everything. He has every answer.
And on Thursday, he got a couple of terrific breaks.
First, on the par-4 6th hole, just after making two straight birdies, Johnson let his drive release into some fescue so tall that it might conceal one of his two toddlers. As a mass of people searched for the ball, somebody stepped on it and Johnson got a free drop. A bogey there could have been (a lot) worse. Then at the par-4 8th, Johnson hit a lousy approach after playing partners Justin Thomas and Tiger Woods stuck theirs to within birdie range. Johnson, though, was the only one who made birdie when he holed out from the bunker. It's rare that his shot would be the only one of the three rewarded, but that's how Round 1 went for him.
Of course, he also hit some absolute missiles, which led to stress-free pars, a nice luxury on a day like Thursday when the wind howled and the greens baked. Now he's in control of the tournament. He's a heavy Las Vegas favorite to take his U.S. Open in three years, and while there's still a long way to go, Johnson doesn't have many thoroughbreds running with him. He might not win this week, but it's pretty easy to see him winning.
Every aspect of D.J.'s game impresses -- he's No. 1 on the PGA Tour in strokes gained overall for a reason -- but his short game was especially magnificent on Thursday. Playing with one of the better short-game wizards on the PGA Tour (Thomas) and one of the better short-game players ever (Woods), D.J. shined. He only hit nine greens in regulation and still kept it under par. That's how you win majors.
You could feel the buzz, too. D.J. taking Oakmont an Shinnecock in three years? Is that really going to happen? The good folks in attendance in Round 1 could sense him rising up the leaderboard as the tournament unfurled in front of them.
As I walked one of the great courses in the country, a laid-back Southampton crowd prodded Johnson, Thomas and Woods. In a tuft of silence, I heard one fan gasp as D.J. swaggered past.
"When God created man, he created that. That's Adam."
No, that's Dustin. And he co-leads the U.S. Open.
Here's nine more thoughts on Round 1 on Thursday.
1. Tiger's first since 2015: It went. He shot a 78, but he only really hit two or three terrible shots. Unfortunately for him, hitting two or three terrible shots at a U.S. Open at Shinnecock is like hitting 12 or 13 somewhere else. I'm always amazed at how thin the margins are, and it really speaks to how good your short game has to be (see: Johnson, Dustin).
2. Early ejections: My flight to Long Island got in at 2 a.m. on Thursday morning, so I was a little late getting to the course. By the time I got there, the trio of Rory McIlroy, Jordan Spieth and Phil Mickelson was 13 over through five holes and more or less ejected from the championship. It settled down (?) from there, and they played the final 13 holes in "just" 12 over.. Welcome to the the 2018 U.S. Open!
3. Stat of the day: How about this one from Phil Mickelson? He hit 13 (!) of 14 fairways (Phil Mickelson!) and still shot a 77. Phil Mickelson hit every fairway except for one and could not crack 75 at a U.S. Open!
4. Scott Piercy is near the lead because golf is weird: Piercy couldn't even finish a practice round, and then he went out and beat the field average at a U.S. Open by seven strokes with a 1-under 69 in the first round. "Yesterday, I walked off the golf course after four holes because I was so frustrated with my preparation," said Piercy. "I was skanking it, and I lost like five balls in the first four holes. I'm like, 'I'm outta here.' ... I didn't really expect this this morning. Just kind of regrouped last night, tried to go back to a couple things that have worked throughout the year. I was able to kind of piece it together again."
5. Importance of positioning: It never ceases to amaze me how quickly a 156-player field can get whittled down to a realistic 15-20 golfers. Of course, somebody could come from 10 back, but it's highly improbable, especially with stability in Johnson atop the leaderboard. The following is one of my favorite stats every year as it relates to the Masters, and it applies to the U.S. Open as well. You almost have to be within striking distance of whatever the lead is after 18 holes, even if it feels like there's still a ton of golf left to be played.
6. How tough the course was playing: The stats are pretty incredible. Doubles, in theory, always seem difficult to make from the middle of the fairway for the best players in the world. The U.S. Open makes them look quite straightforward. The U.S. Open makes you wonder how guys ever make par.
- Scoring average: 76.5
- Players under par: 4 (of 156)
- Holes playing to an under par average: 2
- Double bogeys or worse: 1.3 per player
- Field total over par: +1,010
- Golfers in the 80s: 29
We'll get to why this was happening in just a minute, but I was fascinated that it was happening. After last year's Greater Milwaukee Open impression at Erin Hills where 16 under won the golf tournament, you knew the USGA would tighten things up. Even though I'm a proponent of par as a social construct and loudly said so last year at Erin, I thoroughly enjoyed the carnage on Day 1 at Shinnecock. In many ways, this is America's answer to a wicked tough Open Championship in nasty weather. This course doesn't need the weather to be hard, though, and that's why it's such a world class test of skill.
"You know, it's a U.S. Open," said reigning champion Brooks Koepka. "You can shoot ... 5 over today and shoot 1 under tomorrow and be just fine going into the weekend. So I'm not too concerned."
Maybe he should be. Maybe the USGA is just getting warmed up.
7. Why the course was so tough: It was really, really windy today. That's the primary reason a course that was playing mostly benign for the last week became wicked tough in a hurry on Thursday.
"It takes every mistake you make, and it just makes it all worse, said Charles Howell III, who shot a 1-over 71. "And with these corner hole locations, just off of crowns ... it's really difficult to get the ball close. So you find yourself playing defensive golf quite a lot. You've got certain doglegs and crosswinds going against that, it's really difficult to keep the ball actually in the fairway. With these U.S. Open setups, it's hard to recover. I mean, you're never really playing aggressively out here. It's all about saving yourself."
Justin Rose and several others added that it's really the greens that make scoring so difficult.
"If you play really good golf, you're still a bit on the defensive side," said Rose. "I hit so many putts today, you're trying to make the putt but you're trying not to knock it four foot by. Around the cup, there are so many changes of slope. So you can be putting uphill all the way to the hole, but two or three feet after the hole, it goes up and over and away. So very tough to judge the speed."
A thick wind combined with a tough setup that Howell said he was surprised didn't create more oscillating balls on the greens created conditions that resulted in 152 of 156 players in the field to shoot over par.
8. The lurkers: Guys who we could be looking back on late on Sunday and saying, "Man, how good was that score on Thursday to stay in the tournament and give himself a shot on the weekend?"
- Justin Rose: 71
- Henrik Stenson: 71
- Brandt Snedeker: 72
- Jason Dufner: 72
- Xander Schauffele: 72
- Rickie Fowler: 73
- Paul Casey: 73
- Patrick Reed: 73
- Justin Thomas: 74
- Matt Kuchar: 74
- Louis Oosthuizen: 74
- Marc Leishman: 74
"I'm aware of the big picture of this tournament, I think, and I think I knew what today was all about," said Rose after his 71. "It was about hanging in there. If I'd shot 72 or 73, it would be a good day's work as well. Today is about eliminating a bad round, and I think it's turned into a really positive start."
9. Top 10 struggles: The top 10 players in the Official World Golf Rankings were a combined 52 over on Thursday at Shinnecock. I was wrong about this track, I guess. I thought it would produce a leaderboard littered with stars and superstars. There are a few, but not as many as I thought there would be.
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