SAN FRANCISCO – The world’s three top-ranked golfers exchanged halfhearted handshakes and sheepish smiles on the final green at Olympic Club, then let out a collective sigh as they trudged up the makeshift stairs to sign their scorecards – professional golf’s version of a death march if there ever was one.
There is nothing random about U.S. Open tee times. There is no computer-generated software that spits out player permutations, no dart-throwing, coin-flipping or picking out of a hat.
To refer to any specific group as divine intervention is to call the USGA divine, as the organizing committee intervenes in order to proffer the most entertaining – or enigmatic or eclectic – trios over the first two rounds of its annual grindfest.
And so it shouldn’t come as a surprise that Luke Donald, Rory McIlroy and Lee Westwood found themselves sharing a tee time, the first three names atop the Official World Golf Ranking side by side by side in a physical sense, too.
What should come as a surprise is how they fared in the opening round of the 112th edition of the event.
Donald posted a 9-over 79; McIlroy shot a 7-over 77; and Westwood carded a 3-over 73.
To paraphrase an old John Lennon line, it was instant carnage right from the beginning. The group tallied two bogeys and a double on the opening hole and failed to recover during the remainder of the round.
Their combined total of 19 over par may not sound too ghastly on a day when only a half-dozen competitors broke par, but check out the world’s top three in comparison to some other, well, less ballyhooed triumvirates:
• Shane Bertsch, Tommy Biershenk and Martin Flores – all little-known PGA Tour pros – beat them by five strokes.
• Marc Warren, Michael Allen and Anthony Summer – a European Tour regular, a Champions Tour regular and a former toilet cleaner – beat them by nine.
• Scott Langley, Steve Lebrun and Beau Hossler – two fringe pros and a 17-year-old amateur – beat them by 10.
• Jason Bohn, Rafael Jacquelin and Jae-Bum Park – three pros with varying degrees of moderate success – beat them by 17.
That’s right, golf fans. If you had Bohn, Jacquelin and Park giving 16 strokes in the opening round against the world’s three top-ranked players, congratulations. You’re a winner.
All together, Donald, McIlroy and Westwood totaled 20 bogeys and a double – against just three birdies for the day.
“Well, the top three in the world and we make three between us,” said Donald, who didn’t contribute a single birdie. “It shows how tough it is. There aren't that many opportunities out there.”
The world’s top-ranked player, Donald forged a symmetrical round of nine pars and nine bogeys. It marked the seventh straight time he opened a U.S. Open with a score in the 70s – and that was only thanks to a pair of pars to close. The stat of the day from Olympic? Andy Zhang, at 14 years old the youngest competitor in tournament history, tied the man with No. 1 next to his name.
“The U.S. Open, the margins are that much smaller and if you're just a little bit off, which I was today, it's tough,” Donald admitted. “And then you have to really rely on chipping it close and making some putts and I didn't do that. My putter kind of went cold today, otherwise I could have probably ground out some more respectable score. But this place is tough. I feel like even from yesterday it got a lot tougher and I didn't hit the shots when I needed to.”
In his title defense after cruising to an eight-stroke victory a year ago at Congressional, McIlroy didn’t fare much better. After compiling just four over-par individual hole totals last year, he doubled that number on Thursday, with eight bogeys against just a lone birdie.
“It was a combination of things,” he said afterward. “You hit your first shot out of position. It's hard to get your second shot back into position. If you hit one bad shot on any of the holes, it's very hard to recover from that. And that's what I found today.”
For his part, Westwood may be getting unfairly lumped in with the poor play of his partners. His 73 was actually more than two full strokes below the field scoring average for the round, and after starting with a double bogey on the first, he played the final 17 holes in just 1 over.
Still, he was at least an eyewitness to the carnage if not an outright contributor. The halfhearted handshakes, the sheepish smiles, the collective sighs – they were all the result of a long, unsatisfying day that left the world’s top three players trudging off the course when it was finally complete.