The traditional marquee grouping of the defending U.S. Open champion, the U.S. Amateur champion and the British Open champion lived up to its billing on Thursday in Round 1 of the 122nd U.S. Open at The Country Club. If you wanted a lesson in solid, steady, drama-free golf, the kind that produces U.S. Open contenders, this was a group to watch. And appreciate.
Jon Rahm opened his title defense with a highly respectable 1-under-par 69, a score he secured with a curling 21-foot birdie putt at the home hole. Colin Morikawa, owner of the Claret Jug, got as low as 3 under par before also settling for 69. Finally, James Piot, who won the U.S. Amateur a year ago but is competing as a pro, apparently felt that if 69 was good enough for them, then he’d shoot 69, too.
“I think in our group, as you can play out through the entire round, there was a lot of birdie opportunities from hole 1 all the way through 18,” Morikawa noted.
It was quite a morning, with lots of fairways and greens on the menu, and for a while, the two Open winners were thinking that the proud old composite layout might be susceptible to a low score. While Morikawa got to 3 under, Rahm was on his heels at 2 under par at one point. Then the winds kicked up, and that changed the challenges – and their thinking.
“Through nine I thought I was going to go a lot deeper than three, I'll tell you that,” said Morikawa, 25, who finished T-4 a year ago at Torrey Pines. “For a U.S. Open comparing to my other few that I've played, I would say pretty gettable. We got lucky earlier this morning. No wind. It was probably a little warmer. Nicer weather.”
“Honestly, the first five holes when we had no wind, I was thinking we're going to blow the roof off this place,” added Rahm, 27. “Somebody is going to shoot 6, 7 under if the wind doesn't pick up, right? Obviously, a well-designed golf course is always difficult. When the crosswinds started coming, it was tough.”
Neither man was particularly thrilled with his game. But they liked the score they posted. Breaking par in a U.S. Open always is satisfying.
Morikawa, it seems, is fighting his swing. His usually reliable cut shot has gone missing, so he is playing a draw, he said, for the first time since his college days at Cal. He’s not comfortable over the ball. And yet, he still found 10 of 14 fairways and 11 greens.
“It's really hard. I played a lot of golf last week and a lot of holes to try to be able to trust it,” he said. “I haven't played a draw since maybe freshman year of college. Definitely in high school. It's different. It's not the same trust, but this week I have to trust it. That's the only way I'm going to hit shots.”
Rahm felt like he stole one at the last when he made birdie out of the left rough. “It's just more of a thank-God-I-made-a-putt-type deal,” he said after needing 31 putts on a day when he hit 13 greens in regulation.
The birdie came after it appeared that his ball had been pilfered by unknown culprits – though Rahm indicated that he had an idea what had happened.
“I'm pretty sure I know who it was. I recognized the two kids that were running the opposite way with a smile on their face,” he said while letting his own smile show. “I'm just really happy somebody spotted the ball first.”
Rahm got a free drop in the area where the ball was last spotted, and the Spaniard had about 135 yards left. His right-to-left curling putt from the right edge died in the hole to give him his fourth straight opening round of 69 in the U.S. Open. In the previous three years he has finished T-3, T-23 and first.
“I feel like I played pretty good golf all day,” he said. “I just saw a lot of them get close and not go in, and to hit two wayward drives in the last two holes and somehow end up with two birdie putts and making the last one ... it's more the fact of making a putt to break par in the first round of the U.S. Open. It's quite a big deal.”
And all three members of the group were part of that deal. Piot, by the way, had three birdies and two bogeys after hitting 10 fairways and 14 greens in regulation. The recent Michigan State grad was hardly intimidated.
“What can I say? We know what Collin does. Pretty steady golfer. It's not the best ball-striking I've ever seen him have, but he had a lot of up-and-downs today that were really impressive that kept the round going,” Rahm said. “James, what to expect from a U.S. Am champion, right? He is a talented player. He shot 1 under, and I think he played the best of the three of us.”
Dave Shedloski is an Ohio-based writer who frequently contributes to USGA websites.