PINEHURST, N.C. – On Wednesday, Martin Kaymer was asked what he would take for a 72-hole score at Pinehurst.
“8 over par,” he said.
So much for that. A day later, he posted the lowest score ever here (65) in a U.S. Open.
Fast, fiery and unforgiving earlier this week, the restored Pinehurst No. 2 was surprisingly gettable during the first round of this 114th Open.
A few of the tees were moved up. Morning cloud cover locked in the moisture. There was little, if any, wind.
“We had ideal scoring conditions,” Jordan Spieth said, “if that’s such a thing at a U.S. Open.”
Said Brendon de Jonge (68): “I definitely felt like if you’re going to get it, today is the day.”
Fearful of a course that had already become firm, crispy and right on the edge, and with the women also coming to town next week, the USGA met for its 2:30 p.m. meeting Wednesday and decided to put very little water on the course in anticipation of an overnight storm. There wasn’t a drop, so the setup crew applied “ample” water on Thursday morning. A similar plan is in place for Friday.
The result was more birdies than anticipated, and a bunched leaderboard that held until Kaymer birdied three of his last five holes to take a three-shot lead.
“Pinehurst played beautifully,” USGA executive director Mike Davis said. “We couldn’t have been happier for Day 1 of the U.S. Open.”
At one point Thursday, there were 96 players within four shots of the lead. Now, there are 15. When the Opens were played here in 1999 and ’05, there were 23 and nine under-par scores in Round 1, respectively. Thirty-five rounds were at par or better Thursday. The opening-round scoring average was 73.23.
“What we saw is probably the most scoreable it’s going to be all week,” said Rory McIlroy, who shot 71.
“I was pleasantly surprised,” Matt Kuchar (69) said.“It was quite playable.”
And it stayed that way in the afternoon too, when we once again dodged the pop-up thunderstorms that are so common this time of year.
Those in the afternoon wave had an added benefit: TV coverage. Able to watch how balls were reacting on the greens, players going off late adopted a more aggressive mentality than the morning-wavers who had seen in practice rounds how scary a firm-and-fast Pinehurst can be.
Harris English said he watched the coverage for only 15 minutes and knew that he needed to change his approach. No longer did he have to hit his second shots short of the hole and wait for the big bounce. If he was playing from the fairway, and he had a short iron, chances were good that he could stop the ball somewhere near the hole.
“It wasn’t crazy out there,” said English, who shot 69. “It wasn’t unfair by any means.”
Said Kaymer, “It was more playable than I thought. I think that made a big difference, mentally, that you feel like there were actually some birdies out there, not only bogeys.”
Though he currently sits at 5 under, even Kaymer knows he is unlikely to stay there. Friday is a new day, with different tee boxes and hole locations and conditions. The weekend will get firmer still.
The winning score at the past two U.S. Opens was over par. The winning score at Pinehurst in 1999 and ’05 was 279 (-1) and 280 (E), respectively. It’s a safe bet the 72-hole total here will be around that number, too.
“Hopefully I’m not right with the plus-8 (prediction),” Kaymer said, smiling. “I would be disappointed.”
And Pinehurst would have won again.