PEBBLE BEACH — The signage suspended throughout Pebble Beach reads "U.S. OPEN." Save for the leader board, that is, signaling the Crosby Clambake is afoot.
No, Ray Romano isn't aimlessly strolling through the rough, nor is Bill Murray throwing spectators into bunkers (as far as we know). But you're forgiven for thinking these things so, as the U.S. Open—the tournament that's added "good bogey" to the sport's vernacular—was spray-painted red on Thursday morning.
The last time the national championship visited Monterey Peninsula, the field was 4.288 strokes over par on Thursday. Only nine players broke 71, the low score a 69. That was far from the scene in the first wave of the 2019 U.S. Open, where 23 players shot 70 or better.
Rickie Fowler, Xander Schauffele and Louis Oosthuizen turned in five-under 66s. Scott Piercy was five under through six holes. Graeme McDowell, who finished under par in just one of four rounds when he won this championship here in 2010, managed to go bogey-free.
And that's just the morning wave. World beater Brooks Koepka is four under through his first six; same with reigning U.S. Amateur champ Viktor Hovland. Francesco Molinari is doing Francesco Molinari-at-majors magic.
And there were smiles—smiles! There's no smiling at the U.S. Open. Club slams and exasperated sighs and muffled cursing … but smiling, in sincerity? Somewhere, Mike Davis is lighting a blue blazer in effigy.
Or is he?
Part of Thursday's fireworks can be chalked up to benign conditions. The wind, which can whip around these parts something fierce, was mostly a bystander throughout the morning, gusting no more than a mother's kiss to her newborn. The grounds are soft, balls not running out in the fairway like they did in 2010 or 2000. The greens held most approaches, even those from the patching, gnarly rough.
"The fairways are very slow," said Rory McIlroy, author of a three-under 68. "The greens are quite soft still ... There's generous targets out there."
But the other, more important part: After last year's gaffe at Shinnecock Hill, followed by an inauspicious roll-out to the revised Rules of Golf, the USGA understands it has zero room for error at this U.S. Open. With players, media, fans.
"I think it's critical," said John Bodenhamer, senior managing director of championships, in regards to operating a smooth week. "I think we've talked about it all year long, and, as Mike said, I think it's important not only for the USGA but for the game and what we do for the game."
So it's not surprising that, on the scoring spectrum, the numbers are closer to the AT&T Pro-Am than the integrity of par.
One week won't erase the wounds of the past. It can go a ways in stopping the bleeding. Thursday morning proved to be that bandage, at least from the players' standpoint, with hole locations deemed accessible and the greens cut to a moderate 12 Stimpmeter speed. Unsurprisingly, they found the course fair on Thursday.
"Yeah, I thought they did a really good job," Oosthuizen said. "The greens were receptive. It was running nicely. I think the golf course was set up really good for good scoring in the morning and probably get a little bumpy in the afternoon and firm up a little bit."
Piercy echoed those thoughts. "I felt the conditions were really fair," he said. "The greens obviously in the morning are going to be a little bit softer than in the afternoon, so that's good ... But if you drive it in the fairway, it's fair. You can hit it on the greens. It's receptive."
McIlroy pointed out the importance of starting soft, that way the USGA—echoing the infamous comments of Zach Johnson—is "completely in control of the golf course." Even Phil Mickelson, the USGA's most outspoken critic, conceded the organization got it right.
"You don't know how the weather is going to be and all that stuff, but it seems like they did a heck of a job," Mickelson said on Thursday after shooting an opening 72.
Sure, there will be a contingent of folks that will see the litany of low scores and shake their heads, screaming it's too easy of a set-up or that technology has ruined another classic course. But Erin Hills this is not.
"If they want to dial it up and make it a little bit further, they just don't have to put much water on it tonight and we'll come out tomorrow and it will play a little bit trickier," McIlroy said. "All this golf course needs is just a little tweak here and there, and it can play a lot more difficult."
Moreover, is there anything inherently wrong with this scoring? There are those who love watching pros made to look like the average hack at this tournament, but save for those U.S. Open
sadists purists, Pebble is fulfilling the ethos of USGA icon Sandy Tatum: not humiliating the best players in the world, but identifying who they are. There was no controversy, no complaining, no second-guessing on Thursday. The golf spoke for itself.
Of course, Mickelson reminded us that "there's three more days," and that's the rub. It's easy to forget, but, to a man, the players found Shinnecock a challenging—but not tricked-up—layout through two days, when Dustin Johnson was the lone player under par. Then Saturday happened and all went to hell. Nevertheless, Bodenhamer and his crew are confident in the plan in place.
"We feel good about what you see on the golf course," he said, "and what we're going to present to the players as a tough but true test."
Thursday proved to be a birdie-fest at the 2019 U.S. Open. And there's nothing wrong with that.