BETHESDA, Md. – Roberto Castro didn't qualify for the U.S. Open this year. He felt as if he played in one at Congressional Country Club on Thursday in the AT&T National.
Castro ran off three straight birdies late in his round for a 5-under 66, giving him the lead on a tough day that didn't yield too many low scores considering the cloud cover and relatively soft conditions.
Billy Horschel, who tied for fourth in the real U.S. Open two weeks ago at Merion, began his day with a 50-foot birdie putt, added a pair of birdies over the next three holes and then hung on for a 68. That was the best score among the early starters. Bud Cauley had a 68 in the afternoon.
''It's like another U.S. Open,'' Horschel said. ''Off the fairways, the rough is thick. Fortunately, the greens are soft, so they're really receptive. It's still a tough golf course.''
Congressional has hosted the U.S. Open three times, and it looks like it could handle another with a moment's notice.
The course is among the longest this year. The rough is denser than usual, putting an extra premium on the tee shot.
Lucas Glover, a former U.S. Open champion, called it ''the most boring round of PGA Tour golf I've heard.''
''I heard two cheers across the whole golf course all morning,'' Glover said after a hard-earned 71. ''They definitely weren't for my group.''
Officials cut the rough on Wednesday, though its thickness presented the bigger problem than the height of the grass. The par-5 ninth hole played 635 yards into a light wind, making it a three-shot hole – unless a player missed the fairway off the tee, making it a four-shot hole to get on the green.
It's far tougher than Congressional was for the U.S. Open two years ago, when the course was relatively soft throughout the week. Rory McIlroy played far better than anyone that week and won by eight shots at a record 16-under 268.
''We're in the entertainment business,'' Glover said. ''These people like to see us make birdies, not chip out of the rough. I'm fine with it four or five times a year. We have Honda, Akron, Congressional ... we've got 10. I'm fine with hard golf courses, but make it fun for us, make it fun for the fans. We're supposed to be showing people how good we are, not how good we can chip out of the rough.''
Castro made only one bogey, and that was from the fairway. He put his second shot on the 11th into the water and saved bogey with a chip to tap-in range. He bounced back with consecutive birdies and twice made solid par saves, before his run of birdies on his back nine.
Castro played his first U.S. Open last year at The Olympic Club and missed the cut. He saw similarities in one respect.
''There's not a lot of birdies,'' he said.
The biggest roar he heard was for Brandt Snedeker, and they weren't even in the same group. Castro had just come off a par save at No. 3 when he saw Snedeker, who was on the ninth hole, trying to play from the tee box at No. 4. He heard a big roar when Snedeker's third shot flew over the big trees and onto the green and an even bigger cheer when Snedeker holed a 50-foot birdie putt.
But it was a quiet day for the most part.
''Two U.S. Opens in three weeks,'' said George McNeill, who had a 71 while playing with Jonas Blixt and Ben Curtis. ''And before that, we got to play the U.S. Open at Muirfield (Village), too. It was fairly quiet out there. You have a few cheers here and there. But we had the 'hot dog' group. That's where the fans are looking at the pairing sheet and go, 'Curtis, Blixt, McNeill. Let's go get a hot dog.'''
It didn't help that Tiger Woods wasn't around, unable to play because of a sore left elbow that will keep him out of competition until the British Open next month.
Woods won last year at 8-under 276, one of the higher winning scores on Tour in 2012.
''You don't usually see first-round scores on a PGA Tour event only be 3 under leading after the morning wave,'' Horschel said. ''It shows you how tough this golf course is, shows you how long the rough is.''
Horschel, though, said he likes it that way because it doesn't feel like a putting contest.
As for not having Woods around? Horschel doesn't look at the AT&T National any differently without him.
''Tiger is Tiger. He's just another guy,'' Horschel said. ''He's just another player out there. For me, thinking about someone, how great he is, is just a distraction for me. But it is a disappointment that he's not playing out there because obviously it is his event. The crowds love him to death, and he does spice up the event a little bit.''