A recurring theme for Tiger Woods on a Friday: struggling to stay relevant in the tournament.
He will need a good day during the second round at Winged Foot in Mamaroneck, New York, not only to get back into contention, but perhaps to even make the 36-hole cut, which would be for the top 60 players and ties.
And this has been the story for Woods in golf’s return from the coronavirus pandemic shutdown. He has been unable to get off to fast starts, which leaves him scrambling. And so far, he has not been close to contention in any of the five events he has now played.
Making matters worse for Woods is the fact that he made five birdies on Thursday. That should have been enough to be under par and within touch of leader Justin Thomas, whose 65 is the lowest score ever shot in any U.S. Open round at Winged Foot.
In fact, only two other times in 21 previous U.S. Opens did Woods have at least five birdies in an opening round, and he won them both: in 2000 at Pebble Beach, when he had six; and in 2002, when he opened with five birdies at Bethpage Black.
Woods was undone by his inability to hit fairways. He hit only six for the round, and it cost him dearly at the end, as he played the 17th and 18th holes in 3 over par, making a double bogey at the 18th that was also impacted by a poor pitch shot.
“The golf course is there to be had,” said Woods, who lamented his 3-over-par 73 afterward. “I didn’t finish it off the way I needed to.”
Woods has his work cut out for him now. He tees off at 1:27 p.m., when the course is likely to be more difficult although its relative easiness Thursday impacted his position.
Considering that Winged Foot yielded a winning score of 5 over par in 2006, you would think 3 over would not be that bad. But Woods found himself well outside of the top 50 as play progressed — and he has won only one major championship when out of the top 30 after the first round. That came at the 2005 Masters.
It was also the first time that Woods finished a major championship round by going 3 over in two holes since the third round of the 1997 PGA Championship — also at Winged Foot.
Woods will obviously have to hit more fairways. And after hitting only nine of 18 greens, it will help if he found a few more of those, too.
Here are some other things to look for in Round 2 of the U.S. Open.
Bounce back needed
Dustin Johnson has been on a roll of late, so his 73 in the opening round was a bit surprising. He had a stretch of 20 scores of 71 or better as he won the Northern Trust and Tour Championship while finishing runner-up at the BMW Championship and tied for second at the PGA Championship. It was his highest score since he shot 78 and withdrew at the 3M Championship. He is tied for 71st and has some work to do to get back into the mix. He trails leader Justin Thomas by eight strokes.
“Get a little better with the reads [in the second round] and maybe drive it in the fairway a little bit more, but other than that, I feel pretty good about — 3 over is not — I didn’t play great, didn’t make any putts,” he said. “So obviously [Friday] if I shoot a few under, I’ll get back in the golf tournament.”
The feel-good story of the U.S. Open is not going to happen. It was a longshot to begin with, and it came crashing down Thursday when Phil Mickelson could not hit a fairway. Actually, he hit two. And it led to his highest score ever in 29 U.S. Open appearances.
Mickelson, the tough-luck runner-up at Winged Foot in 2006 when he double-bogeyed the last hole to lose by a shot, missed the first two fairways badly but still managed to birdie each hole. The good vibes ended there, as Lefty’s inability to keep the ball in play plagued him dearly.
He followed with nine bogeys and a double bogey to shoot 79 and will be playing for posterity on Friday.
“I don’t know what to say, it was a disappointing day,” Mickelson said. “I drove it poorly and putted poorly. The course couldn’t be set up any better. It’s a spectacular golf course, great design, awesome setup, and I thought it was a good opportunity to score low. I just played terrible.”
Mickelson, 50, has finished runner-up a record six times at the U.S. Open, the only major he has not won. The dream was for him to get into contention here for an unlikely shot at finally claiming the title.
But his play last week at the Safeway Open should have been a clue. Mickelson hit just three of 28 fairways on the weekend. And that frustrating trend continued.
The oldest champion?
With Mickelson out of contention, perhaps Lee Westwood can step forward for the old guys. The Englishman is making his first appearance in the United States since the resumption of play, and opened with a 67. Now 47, he would be the second-oldest major champion behind Julius Boros, who won the 1968 PGA Championship at age 48.
Westwood was eligible for both the WGC-FedEx St Jude Invitational and the PGA Championship but decided not to travel. He had been somewhat outspoken in the early days after the restart about coming to the United States due to its high rate of COVID-19 cases.
“I was reluctant to go to Spain for the Valderrama tournament,” the Englishman said of the recent European Tour event. “It’s just a strange world that we’re living in right now, and people have different opinions on things, don’t they? They evaluate things differently.
“I don’t really criticize anybody that takes an opinion opposite to mine. It’s just that you shouldn’t be at a golf tournament if you don’t feel like it’s right. I’m not saying it isn’t right for certain people, but just for me it wasn’t right.”
Westwood said he decided to take the trip after conferring with others and learning how all the protocols worked.
“I felt comfortable coming here,” he said.
JT’s putting work
Tournament leader Justin Thomas wants to continue some improved play on the greens. Thomas lamented some poor putting in his game since winning the WGC-FedEx St. Jude Invitational in early August. He was particularly frustrated at the Tour Championship.
So he began working with a new putting coach this week. Thomas said he was seeing putting instructor John Graham for help on the greens. He has worked with Matt Killen for a majority of his career going back to his college days at Alabama.
“It didn’t change much,” Thomas said after needing just 28 putts on his way to the opening-round 65. “It was more of a process thing for me. Matt and I developed a really good setup and a really good stroke. He did a great job of getting me in that. I was just having a hard time, we were both having a hard time figuring out why I was missing putts when I got done with a round. That’s an issue because you don’t know what to address.
“A lot of my issues were green reading and visualization. That’s what we’ve been working on more than anything. It’s not like I’m going out and doing mechanical stuff. And it’s just trying to kind of get the muscle memory of hitting the putt as far as I want to and feeling comfortable playing different breaks and almost kind of creating shots on the putting green. As a feel player, it’s been really helpful.”
Rory’s quick start
For just the third time in his U.S. Open career, Rory McIlroy started the tournament with a score under par. And his 67 was his best in the tournament since his last round, a 65, in 2015 at Chambers Bay.
“Maybe putting myself under a little bit too much pressure to get off to a good start,” McIlroy said of some of his recent opening-round major struggles. “First round of a major you’re always anxious to play well, and maybe I’ve overthought it at times. I just went out and just took what was given to me, a little more relaxed and played really nicely.”
The only other times McIlroy shot under par in the first round of a U.S. Open came last year at Pebble Beach, where he tied for 10th, and in 2011 at Congressional, where he went on to win.
Since the last of McIlroy’s four major titles at the 2014 PGA Championship, he has 10 top-10 finishes in majors but he has missed three cuts at the U.S. Open.
“I think at a U.S. Open If you can get off to a good start, you’re not chasing as much. And when you chase on U.S. Open golf courses, that’s when you can start to make mistakes and compound your errors.
“To have that sort of cushion, to be a little bit more relaxed about your play, not take on too much, be able to still play conservative golf, I think that’s important here.”