Surprise, Surprise
September 17, 2020

U.S. Open 2020: Here's why Winged Foot played surprisingly easy on Day 1, and why you shouldn't get used to it

1272998229

Gregory Shamus

With a five-under 65, Justin Thomas shot the lowest U.S. Open round ever at Winged Foot. He was one of 21 players to post a sub-par score during Thursday's first round.

MAMARONECK, N.Y. — Carnage, they said.

If you paid attention to the pre-tournament hype for this U.S. Open, you were probably expecting another “Massacre at Winged Foot.” We saw video after video of balls being dropped into ankle rough and disappearing, of putts rolling up to the back of the green and then tumbling, and tumbling, and tumbling all the down to the front. The question wasn’t whether the winning score would be over par—it was whether it would surpass the five-over total that Geoff Ogilvy won with the last time the Open was here, in 2006.

Instead, after one day, the leader board looks like … well, a normal golf tournament.

You are using an unsupported version of Internet Explorer. Please upgrade to Internet Explorer 11 or use a different web browser.

Justin Thomas shot five-under 65, lowest Open round in history at Winged Foot, and leads. Patrick Reed, Thomas Pieters and Matthew Wolff posted 66s. Rory McIlroy shot 67 and felt he left a few out there. When the sun set on Thursday, there were 21 scores in the 60s on the par-70 West course and only one in the 80s. The scoring average was 72.49—difficult, for sure, but nothing special for a U.S. Open; the first-round score at Winged Foot in 2006 was 74.66.

“It was great golfing conditions this morning,” said Justin Rose, who shot 73. It’s one thing for a guy who shot 65 to say he felt it was easy. It’s even more telling when someone who shot three over concurs. “There’s still a tiny bit of moisture on the golf course. It’s receptive to good iron shots.”

Receptive indeed, particularly early in the day. Weather, of course, is the one thing course-maintenance teams can’t control. And on Thursday morning, there was no wind to speak of and the ground was wet to the touch. One might think that heat would make greens dryer—that’s true in some places at some times, but not in late summer in New York. Because heat brings humidity, and humidity brings moisture. There was hardly any humidity during the practice rounds but it was there on Thursday, and it added an extra bit of moisture that made greens much friendlier to golf balls flying in from 200-plus yards.

“We’re hitting 5-irons that aren’t releasing much,” said Webb Simpson, who teed off at 7:56 a.m. and shot 71. “I don’t know if they wanted them soft on purpose with cooler temperatures and the wind coming, but they’re certainly softer today than they were when I got here on Tuesday.”

The softness helped, but so did the hole locations. Some were in the middle of the green, like on Nos. 3 and 18. Others were particularly accessible, like the par-3 seventh, where there were two holes-in-one. Others, like the first and sixth holes, were placed at the bottom of ridges, allowing players to use the dramatic contours of these A.W. Tillinghast greens to their advantage. “Augusta-like,” is how Rose described them.

“When you hit the right shot at the right time, it’s going to move toward the pin,” Rose said. “Obviously, I played with Rory [McIlroy], who shot three under and made it look relatively easy. Provided you did the right things at the right time, there were some birdies to be made.”

Why was the USGA, not necessarily known for taking it easy with its course setups, so generous? A few potential reasons. One, given the governing body’s turbulent history with U.S. Opens of recent vintage—remember Chambers Bay in 2015, Oakmont in 2016 and Shinnecock Hills in 2018—there could be a tendency to err on the side of caution.

“The greens are very soft,” Thomas said. “I thought they’d be a little firmer, but I also understood that they need to err on this side so they can get them how they want this weekend.”

USGA officials know they can turn this course into a bear with little effort, and it looks like Mother Nature will do most of the lifting on that front on Friday. Rain is forecasted, as are wind gusts up to 30 miles per hour.

Another potential explanation is purely logistical in nature. This U.S. Open was initially scheduled for June 18-21, near the summer solstice. The sun rises before 5:30 a.m. and sets around 8:30. The sun rose at 6:38 on Thursday morning and set at 7:02. That’s two-and-a-half less hours for the field to finish. Knowing this, the USGA cut the field down from 156 to 144, but that only corresponds to two less tee times given the threesomes off double-tees on Thursday and Friday. Everyone involved wants to avoid rounds not ending on time (three players have to return to the course Friday morning to finish up their first rounds due to darkness) or worse a Monday finish, and a gentler course setup leads to faster play.

Again, it’s a long week, and this article could look rather myopic come Sunday evening. Golf tournaments are 72 holes for a reason, and this one is only 25 percent over. The winner could still well be over par, and odds are you won’t see a score lower than Thomas’ 65 all week.

But for one day, at least, big, bad Winged Foot played like just another hard golf course.

• • •