Exactly one month ago, on their way to the opening PGA Tour playoff event in Boston, Tiger Woods and Justin Thomas stopped at Winged Foot Golf Club in Mamaroneck, N.Y., for a reconnaissance mission ahead of this week’s U.S. Open Championship. Woods, the old hand, undoubtedly assumed the role of master showing his young friend some of the finer points of Winged Foot’s West Course.
“I loved it,” Thomas said the day after, of the experience and how he found the storied layout. “It's one of my favorite, if not my favorite, courses I've ever played.”
On Thursday, again playing alongside Woods, it was Thomas taking the three-time U.S. Open champion – as well as reigning PGA champion Collin Morikawa – to school. Looking impressive and implacable, Thomas capped a solid opening round in the 120th U.S. Open with a 25-foot birdie putt on the par-4 18th hole for a 5-under-par 65. Not only was that good for the clubhouse lead, one ahead of Patrick Reed, but it marked the lowest opening round in the six playings of the championship at Winged Foot.
“It was a good day for me from the start,” said Thomas, 27, the PGA of America Player of the Year after three wins in the just-completed 2019-20 PGA Tour season. “Yeah, 65 is fun no matter where you play, especially at Winged Foot. I was in a really good frame of mind, and I was focused.”
On the same home hole, Woods flubbed a chip and suffered a double bogey – a final belly-churning drop to an up-and-down day – to post a 3-over 73. The reigning Masters champion, in fact, played his final two holes in 3 over par after battling to get back to even.
Morikawa, meanwhile, fought his swing all day, double-crossing his way to a round of 76.
Making just his fifth start since the restart of the golf season after a three-month pause due to the COVID-19 pandemic, Woods said he took nothing positive out of his round despite making five birdies, just the third time in his 22 U.S. Open starts that he's played the opening round with at least 5 birdies. In the other two, in 2000 and 2002, he won the championship.
“It was a bit of ebb and flow to the round today,” said Woods, 44, who also competed in the 1997 PGA at Winged Foot, finishing T-29 (when he also was reigning Masters champion). “I did not finish off the round like I needed to. I made a bunch of putts in the middle part of the round. It seemed like most of my drives on the front nine landed in the fairway and ended up in bad spots, and I tried to stay as patient as possible, and, unfortunately, just did not finish off my round the way I needed to.”
Winged Foot hasn’t been kind to the 15-time major winner. In 2006 he shot a pair of 76s and missed the cut for the first time in a major championship. That occurred just one month after the death of his father, Earl.
It was a disappointing ending to Thursday’s round after he holed a series of birdie putts, including a snaking 40-footer at the difficult par-4 16th that at the time was only the third birdie of the day on the arduous 497-yard hole. Woods kicked up his leg as the putt dropped. Then Winged Foot kicked back, as it figures to do to just about everyone in the 144-man field.
Woods, whose stat line included just six fairways hit and nine greens in regulation, called the first-round setup “fantastic” and added, “The golf course was there to be had.” Which probably added to his disappointment.
He watched his friend Thomas, with whom he partnered to win a pair of matches in December at the Presidents Cup in Australia, take advantage. Winged Foot was had, at least for one day with the greens a bit soft and the wind barely detectable.
Winner of the 2017 PGA Championship, Thomas birdied the opening hole after an approach to 2½ feet and added five more birdies against a lone bogey at the par-3 third hole. With the exception of the putt on 18, all of his birdies were from 10 feet or less. He also sank a series of knee-knockers for par in the 4-foot range to keep his card clean.
“I've just played really, really solidly,” said the Kentucky native, who hit nine fairways and 14 greens in regulation. “Hit a lot of really quality tee shots. Only had a few squirrely ones, it felt like. The few greens I missed, I hit great bunker shots to give myself good par chances.
“It's one of the best rounds I've played in a while tee to green,” he added. “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 knows how to score in the U.S. Open. He shot a record-tying 63 in the third round in the 2017 championship at Erin Hills, where he ended up T-9. He started slowly that year, so Thursday’s performance had to feel good. Not that he was putting too much stock into it.
“It's helpful with three days left, but it's not even remotely close to being over,” he 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’ve got 54 more holes to try to play well and shoot some good scores.”
Woods and Morikawa will need good scores on Friday to have a chance to play three more rounds. They tee off again with Thomas at 1:27 p.m. EDT off the 10th hole, sitting, respectively, eight and 11 strokes behind their playing partner and undoubtedly trying to find a way to love Winged Foot as much as he does.
Dave Shedloski is an Ohio-based freelance writer who frequently contributes to usopen.com and usga.org.