PINEHURST, N.C. – Three of golf’s brightest young stars stood on the tee box of the treacherous par-3 ninth hole early Thursday afternoon at the year’s most treacherous tournament. This being their last hole of the opening round, it was the point where their nerves should have been completely frayed, where the mental anguish had eaten away at their composure and the frustration had left their scorecards as barren as Pinehurst’s numerous waste areas.
Instead, Jordan Spieth, Hideki Matsuyama and Rickie Fowler assessed the warm breeze with the patience of a routine practice session. Each of them might have even cracked a little smile – usually forbidden at the U.S. Open – when Spieth broke the silence with a pertinent observation.
“Nobody,” he said to playing partners who along with him were a collective 4 under for the round, “is going to beat our score today.’”
Consider it the innocence of youth that minutes later both Spieth and Fowler were cleaning up bogeys to conclude their rounds, but that underscores the major theme of their day.
In a tournament where it’s so often believed that experience is of the utmost importance, the USGA’s so-called “Young Guns” group included a trio of players who each shot even par or better.
Spieth, 20, posted a 1-under 69; Matsuyama, 22, matched that score; and Fowler, 25, shot even-par 70.
“It was a lot of fun,” Spieth insisted, using an adjective not often associated with this event. “Both of those guys played really well, so we were able to feed off each other. You just want to see some putts go in at a venue like this. You just want to see any putts going in, so you know you can make them.”
Perhaps the biggest takeaway from this group was the not-so-gentle reminder that youthfulness is not synonymous with inexperience. That even though these three combined are still younger than Jack Nicklaus, that doesn’t mean they aren’t seasoned enough to contend for this major championship.
Spieth has already shown that ability. Just two months ago, he played in the final pairing at the Masters Tournament and finished in a share of second place. He followed that with a fourth-place result at The Players Championship. Which means that anyone thinking the world’s 10th-ranked player wouldn’t be a serious contender this week clearly hasn’t been paying attention lately.
“I'm striking it pretty well; it's getting close,” he said after a round that included four birdies against three bogeys. “I started missing fairways in the middle kind of second half of the round today. It's not fun to play out of the weeds, but I got it around. So if I get back on track to the beginning of the round, sure, I think there's some birdies out there.”
Same goes for Matsuyama. The recent Memorial Tournament champion matched Spieth’s birdie and bogey total on Thursday, once again proving himself to be a player ready-made for major contention. In six previous major starts, he’s made five cuts and owns three top-20 finishes.
“Putting was the strong part of my game today,” he allowed. “Just one shot at a time tomorrow and just do my very best.”
If there was a story in the early-morning hours, it was Fowler arriving at the course in plus-fours with argyle socks pulled to his knees – an unmistakable tribute to the late Payne Stewart, who won this tournament on this course 15 years ago.
“It’s cool to be in the position I’m in to wear some attire like he used to wear, to give tribute to him,” he explained. “Obviously he had a special week here in ’99. And I’m off to a decent start.”
With a T-10 at last year’s U.S. Open and a T-5 earlier this year at the Masters, Fowler is establishing himself as another young player who has a knack for getting into contention at majors - just like Spieth and Matsuyama.
“Jordan is one of the top players in the world right now, Hideki is obviously moving up the world ranks and I’ve kind of been hanging around,” he said. “We’re going to be playing against each other for a long time. And it’s fun to be able to get ourselves in contention at majors.
“There are so many good young players out right now, we’re trying to get into the scene a little bit. We’re trying to take some of the majors away from some of the older guys.”
It wasn’t long after that final hole of the day, after Spieth proudly proclaimed that they’d have the day’s best combined score and two of them promptly followed with bogeys, that he was retelling the story of this bravado.
“I guess I jinxed it,” he said with a laugh.
Maybe. On a day when three young stars collectively played the U.S. Open in under par, though, even this jinx couldn’t keep ‘em from laughing about it afterward.