DORAL, Fla. – One by one players marched off Doral’s Blue Monster sun burnt, wind beaten and broken, until one frazzled caddie glanced at the leaderboard.
J.B. Holmes 10-under 62.
“Was that his pro-am score?” the looper cracked.
To the remainder of the 73-man field, however, Thursday was no joke.
Following last year’s carnage, when just three players finished under par, one would have thought the PGA Tour faithful would have readied themselves for another week of unfortunate bounces and unsightly scorecards, but if player reaction was any indication these guys may be good but they also have short memories.
“Ryan (Moore) and J.B. (Holmes), I don’t know what golf course they are playing,” said Gary Woodland, who trails the frontrunners by four and eight strokes, respectively, after an opening 70.
World Golf Championships rookie Brooks Koepka had a slightly different take.
“You kind of have to go into it with a U.S. Open mentality knowing that guys are going to struggle, you're going to struggle and you just have to minimize it and try to make bogeys at worst,” he said.
Savvy Swede Henrik Stenson may have had the best take of Gil Hanse’s redesigned layout.
“It’s very tough. It’s borderline stupid tough,” he said.
Players complaining about a golf course has become as clichéd as fist pumps at the game’s highest level, and while the rank-and-file stopped just short of using the “U” word (unfair), it’s clear the Blue Course is an acquired taste that hasn’t hit the spot just yet.
When Hanse executed his nip/tuck of the Blue before the 2014 championship, he added nearly 200 yards to an already demanding layout. Factor in greens that remain on the bouncy side of new and there was little chance the revamped Doral would be awarded instant classic status.
But this isn’t about Hanse, or Donald Trump. At least not entirely. There’s nothing wrong with Doral that a calm south Florida day can’t fix, but those are as rare as a traffic-free commute to South Beach.
Consider that on Thursday Phil Mickelson rounded the Blue in 74 strokes and failed to make a birdie for the first time since the final round of the 2012 U.S. Open.
Consider that world No. 1 Rory McIlroy turned in 40 after finding the water with his approach into the 18th hole (his ninth hole of the day), the toughest 440 yards one could ever want, chipping his fourth shot off the green and signing for a double bogey-6.
In McIlroy’s defense, it was one of 12 scores of double bogey or worse on Day 1.
“For a person who likes to see disasters that’s a good place to go sit,” said Stenson, who also found the water at the closing hole for a bogey.
Such is life on the Blew Monster, where winds swirled and a total of 84 shiny new golf balls (including 19 at No. 18) found the ubiquitous water hazards.
Most players will tell you the Hanse edition of Doral is harder, but it is the wind that pushes it close to the edge of unplayable.
“I think it's a golf course that's designed for a 10 mph wind and usually you get a 20 mph wind here. It's a tough test,” McIlroy said.
Billy Horschel was not nearly as diplomatic with his assessment toward the new Blue or Hanse.
“As an architect you’d be smart to understand which direction the wind blows and how hard it can blow,” said Horschel, who was one of the lucky few (26 players) who finished at par or better (72). “I’ve never seen the course without a 15 to 20 mph wind. These greens aren’t made to be played in winds like this.”
Of course, not everyone found the course unsavory.
Holmes was one of just three players to finish his round without a bogey, and he distanced himself from the field with a 4-under stretch in three holes that included a tap-in for eagle at the 12th hole. The three-time Tour winner will begin Friday’s second turn four clear of Moore and a half dozen ahead of the rest of the pack.
“Before this (the redesign), I didn't care for it at all. One of my least favorite tracks on Tour,” said Holmes, who led the field with a 320-yard driving average. “It was just too easy, I felt like, for a World Golf Championship. Twenty-two under winning really shouldn't happen.”
At Holmes’ current pace that may still be a possibility, just don’t be surprised when his Tour frat brothers offer a familiar response, “What course is he playing?”