UNIVERSITY PLACE, Wash. – A U.S. Open with so many unknowns felt strangely familiar Thursday.
What played out here at Chambers Bay basically followed the first few pages of the USGA’s setup manual: Start out playable for the opener, crank up the intensity for Round 2, and then push the course to the breaking point over the weekend.
“I think they’ve got it down pretty well at this point,” Matt Kuchar said.
And so it was Thursday that two of the game’s best ball-strikers posted 65s, 25 players broke par (the most since 1992) and the first-round scoring average was a gentle 72.72 (lowest since 2003).
Said Michael Putnam, the local product who has logged more rounds here than any player in the field: “It’s about as easy it can play right now.”
Which means it’s only going to get harder, much harder, and that’s when many of the players’ fears about setup and firmness may be realized.
Some have already seen the course at its scariest. Kuchar was among those who heeded Mike Davis’ advice and headed to the Evergreen State early. He played the course last weekend, when it was tan and crusty.
“It was about as firm as I’ve seen a golf course,” he said.
Not the best first impression.
During the practice rounds here several players wondered whether Chambers was already teetering on the edge. The 16th was so concrete-hard, amateur Lee McCoy dribbled his ball down the fairway.
The course is always the biggest early-week story at the U.S. Open, but this year it seemed like it was the only topic of discussion. Players fret over anything new, of course, but Chambers forced those creatures of habit to expand their golfing minds and embrace the differences in elevation change (200 feet) and grass (fescue) and style (linksy).
And then they eased into this Open. Players made birdies, lots of them (372!), and by the end of the day there were 41 scores of par or better.
Overcast skies helped keep some moisture in the severe (and heavily criticized) greens, and the wind only picked up late in the afternoon.
Henrik Stenson, one of the co-leaders, said that he was able to “attack” and fire at a few flags, words rarely spoken in this championship.
Patrick Reed shot 66 and lamented the fact that he also left six birdies “dead in the center, short.”
“I told my brother earlier in the week someone might shoot 6 under in the first round,” said Putnam, who wasn’t far off. “That will give the USGA some oomph to get it back to even par.”
The course played firmer and more difficult in the afternoon, not surprisingly, but those off late also had the added benefit of watching the coverage, like they would overseas for the Open Championship. Jordan Spieth saw a few 9-irons and wedge shots take a hop and stop and realized it’d be the most scorable round of the week.
“It’s going to get more challenging from here,” he said.
Indeed, there’s an unmistakable wariness about what lies ahead.
It’s no coincidence that six of the past 10 years the winning score has been even par or higher. Throw out the rain-softened 2011 Open, and only 10 players have finished 72 holes in red numbers during that span.
“It’s only going to get tougher as the week goes on,” Jason Day said. “It’s all about attitude.”
Said Kuchar: “There’s still something about a U.S. Open that you’re always a little nervous on the course. You know that things can get away quickly if you’re not dialed in just right. If you’re not hitting crisp, good, quality shots, then you’re going to go in places that you don’t want to be.”
More and more players will find those hellish places soon.
They won’t get two cracks at a vulnerable Chambers Bay.