At a normal U.S. Open, when fans pack the fairways watching their favourite golfers, they migrate to watch 15-time major champion Tiger Woods.
Whoever Woods’ playing partners are, in this case, Justin Thomas and Collin Morikawa, raucous energy and enthusiasm swarms them.
Despite the absence of fans, Thomas’ golf shined.
He finished the opening round as the clubhouse leader at the 120th U.S. Open, with a five-under 65.
“It was a really, really solid round of golf,” Thomas said to reporters after his round. “It’s one of the best rounds I’ve played in a while tee to green. There are a couple things here and there that definitely could have been better, but I made sure all of my misses were in the right spot, and that’s what you have to do at a U.S. Open.”
Thomas’ 65 was one of seven rounds in the ’60s in the morning wave. The entire week at Winged Foot in 2006, there were 12 rounds in the 60’s. A lot of chatter before the tournament revolved around Winged Foot’s penal difficulty.
According to Thomas, the conditions were easy to deal with.
“The greens are very soft,” Thomas said. “We had soft conditions this morning, a little overcast. The wind wasn’t really blowing very much. So, it was good scoring conditions.”
On a course where finding the fairway is vital, Thomas succeeded on Thursday. The World No. 3 converted 64 percent of fairways (T-19th), leading to 78 percent greens in regulation (T-12th).
Thomas recorded six birdies in his opening round, including a stretch of four in six holes. He stated that working with putting coach, Matt Killen, allowed Thomas to focus on the process rather than the technical mechanics.
“I had seen him in the middle of the summer and continue to work with Matt and continue to work with some good stuff to where I just felt like, for me, a lot of my issues and problems were the green reading and the visualization,” Thomas said. “It’s not like I’m going out and doing mechanical stuff. It’s just trying to kind of get the muscle memory of hitting the putt as far as I want to and feeling comfortable playing different breaks and almost kind of creating shots, if you will, but on the putting green.”
Thomas ranked fourth in the field after the morning wave in strokes gained: putting (2.53).
Other golfers took advantage of Winged Foot’s scoreable conditions in the morning. 2011 U.S. Open champion Rory McIlroy shot a three-under 67, including three birdies on the Back 9. 2018 Masters champion Patrick Reed showed his toughness after a double bogey on the fifth hole, shooting six-under the rest of the way, including a hole-in-one on the par-3 7th hole.
“I love hard golf courses,” Reed said after his four-under 66 first round. “I think it separates the top golfers compared to the rest of the field. Also I think it separates the guys that can use creativity and can handle adversity.”
All three Canadians in the morning group, Adam Hadwin (+2), Corey (+1) Conners, Mackenzie Hughes (+2), were efficient in their scoring, keeping them in contention.
Winged Foot will certainly get more difficult as the tournament progresses. Four of the previous five times Winged Foot hosted the U.S. Open finished with an over-par score.
The imminent punitiveness isn’t getting Thomas overly excited about his opening-round score. 54 holes remain, meaning a lot of golf is on the table.
“It’s still Winged Foot. You’ve still got to hit the shots.” Thomas said. “…As great of a round and fun as it was, it’s over with now, and I need to get over it because I got 54 more holes to try to play well and shoot some good scores.”