Alex Noren was slurping a milkshake in the player hospitality tent when we caught up with him. The trim Swede could probably down a few and not notice a weight change, particularly after his sojourn around bumpy Erin Hills Thursday morning.
One of the finest players in the world – and one of the hottest in the last 18 months – Noren endured a bit of a struggle in his opening round of the U.S. Open, converting just two birdies in a 1-over-par 73 that will force him to play more aggressively in the second round if he wants to avoid missing his fourth straight cut in this championship.
Then again, when he asks himself for a little more horsepower, he does have that fifth gear, which he exhibited two weeks ago when he fired a final-round 10-under 62 at the Wentworth Club in Surrey, England, to overtake Francesco Molinari and win the European Tour’s flagship event, the BMW PGA Championship.
“Yeah, I had that one really good round, but I haven’t played that well otherwise,” the soft-spoken Noren said. “I played OK, but nothing special. So, I can’t say I came here thinking I was going to shoot something really great. But I did expect better.”
The problem was an iron game that is usually a strength. On the large greens at Erin Hills he just didn’t give himself many reasonable birdie chances. His lone birdies came at the par 5s on the inward nine, 14 and 18, the latter by sinking a 35-footer. That salvaged a frustrating day in which he hit only six of those wide Erin Hills fairways and threw in two three-putts among his 32 whacks on the greens.
Still, the 73 tied his second-best career score in 11 U.S. Open rounds. Only once has he broken 70, in the second round of the 2011 championship at Congressional, the only time he has made the cut. He ended up T-51 at 6-over 290.
Noren, 34, who lives primarily in Sweden though he does have a home in Jupiter, Fla., couldn’t explain his struggles in the U.S. Open. He hasn’t struggled in many other places. He’s won five of his nine European Tour titles in the last year and a half. That total is only two fewer than Sweden’s most famous player, Henrik Stenson, the reigning Open champion.
Then again, Noren has yet to win in America. This year he twice has finished in the top 10, at the WGC-Dell Match Play Championship and The Players. He missed the cut in the Masters.
A father of two with sharp blue eyes and close-cropped blond hair, Noren said he would like to play more in the U.S., but also is devoted to being home as much as he can. “My family situation is my priority,” he said. “I don’t know if I could do it. If I could stay on a good level playing-wise, I would love to try to play both tours.”
His paucity of playing chances in America is, of course, one reason he might be the quietest good player in the world. Noren is eighth in the Official World Golf Ranking, ahead of the likes of Rickie Fowler, Jon Rahm, Justin Rose and Adam Scott, the next four players on the list. But when three of the last five majors have been won by Europeans, it’s not easy to stand out.
“Why would they know me? But that’s OK,” he said earnestly, truly appearing to not care. “They haven’t seen me much.”
A fan of all sports, Noren admits to having a growing interest in cars and boats. But his real passion is golf. Hunter Mahan, who played with Noren at Oklahoma State, said Noren was one of the hardest workers he had ever seen. “Well, when you want to be good at something, all those other things go out the window,” reasoned Noren, who missed most of the 2014 season after hitting so many balls that he developed tendinitis in both wrists.
He knows he has to be good on Friday to get back in the championship. He didn’t seem all that troubled.
“One over is not the end of the world. It’s not that far off,” he said.
After all, he does have that other gear.
Dave Shedloski is an Ohio-based freelance writer and a frequent contributor to USGA websites.