PEBBLE BEACH, Calif. — If U.S. Opens are occasions in which people gather to experience and witness misery, then a U.S. Open did not begin Thursday, even though the 119th one did officially. Thursday featured a profound lack of misery at a place generally about as far from miserable as it gets. The entire day felt like that otter who got airtime on the Fox broadcast, rolling and lolling in the water in rarefied contentment.
Rude weather stayed elsewhere. Placidity ruled. A course that allowed zero guys in the 60s in the first rounds of 1972 and 1982, six in 1992, 10 in 2000 and three in 2010 allowed 27 on Thursday. At a course whose five previous U.S. Opens had seen one 65 (Tiger Woods, 2000) and only six 66s, Justin Rose shot a 65 and four guys shot 66s, all in one day. Every time you turned around, somebody was smiling. By dusk, there had been 17 eagles, including eight on poor little par-5, 523-yard No. 6, a stroll on the seaside.
Rory Sabbatini just couldn’t wait for his eagle on No. 12, so he went ahead and holed it in one after two bounces.
Four-time major winner Rory McIlroy shot 68 and said, “It’s a very soft start to a U.S. Open, which is a good thing, because you’re completely in control of the golf course.” The 2017 Masters champion Sergio Garcia shot 69 and said, “And I do have to say that the course is not going to play any easier than this. It’s impossible.” The 2016 U.S. Open champion Dustin Johnson shot 71 and seemed bummed as he found it “definitely a lot more receptive than it was the last time we were here” in 2010.
Eternal contender Rickie Fowler shot 66 early on and looked prepared to win that first major on that 31st try. The onrushing 25-year-old Xander Schauffele soon joined him. The 2010 British Open champion at another exalted spot, Saint Andrews, Louis Oosthuizen, joined just after that. A few hours went by before Aaron Wise, the South Africa-born, California-raised 22-year-old who won on tour last year at the Byron Nelson, hopped on board and said, “Yeah, it’s a great round, but it is a little bit score-able.” Then came the 2013 U.S. Open champion Rose to birdie the final three holes and nip them all at day’s end.
“Obviously a fun day of golf,” he said.
Brooks Koepka, the two-time defending champion, the No. 1 player in the world and the sensation of the sport at the moment, began with more of his astonishing mastery. He birdied four of the first six holes, chipped in on No. 5 to the fine view of anybody on the boats outside, shot 69 and said, “I’m actually quite pleased. I don’t know how many fairways I hit from 8 on. I didn’t hit many.”
He even spent No. 18 whacking a ball onto the golf cart where an unsuspecting fan with some sort of beverage in her hand reached over to pick it up until a marshal instructed otherwise. He still made par.
Tiger Woods, the 2019 Masters winner and 15-time major champion, wrestled and muscled and grinded his way around the course as can only he, even at 43. He shot 70 even after hitting one near a house where nobody could have blamed him if he went in for a drink. He hit one on a little island amid a bunker.
He said, “As I said, you miss the ball in the correct spots. I made a couple of putts, but the majority of the putts were all uphill. And that’s the key to playing the golf course, you can’t be past the flag. And if I happened to miss” — a double bogey on No. 5 — “I took my medicine and went about my business.”
Just about everyone felt happy. Fowler looked back to the 2018 Masters, in which he finished second and calmly proclaimed himself ready to win a major. “The back nine, the way I executed there was similar to today, except today was all 18 holes,” he said. “You don’t have to do anything special in majors. It’s just being disciplined and executing the shot that’s at hand and what you’re trying to do. Not second-guessing when there is a second thought, kind of regathering, kind of going back through it.”
Schauffele, the 25-year-old San Diego native with the United Nations family tree who has rung up two seconds and four top 10s in only nine majors, wrung a gorgeous eagle with a stunning approach to nine feet after a hairy start on No. 18. “Yeah, lucky finish,” he said, then spoke some near-other language when he said, “I hit a toe ball there ... If I hit it solid I do have 290 in the air. But when you hit it off the toe and it’s diving against a cut wind it usually doesn’t work out. Luckily I hit the correct shot of a rock and it sort of careened down the fairway, 168 out. Very fortunate and happy we capitalized on a really lucky break.”
Oosthuizen got an eagle as well, the lone one on No. 11. “I think just winning a major is already to me sacred enough,” he said of the possible Saint Andrews-Pebble Beach double, nine years after he ran off with the British Open. “To be able to win a U.S. Open would be very magical to me. It would be I think something that anyone can dream of, winning an Open and a U.S. Open. I think Pebble to me is probably one of my favorite, if not the — my favorite venue for a U.S. Open. You’re not going to beat the scenery and everything about this golf course, and it’s just the weather we’re having at the moment, it makes this week really special.”
On a non-miserable Thursday, people felt a whole lot of special.