BETHESDA, Md. With Tiger Woods at home in a walking boot and crutches, a revolving door at the top of the world rankings, and a landlocked host venue that doesn't exactly inspire awe, the 111th U.S. Open at Congressional Country Club was in desperate need of a story line as Thursday's first round approached.
Mercifully it didn't take long for one to unfold as 22-year-old Rory McIlroy fresh off a heartbreaking collapse at the 2011 Masters and even fresher off a heartwarming Unicef visit to Haiti posted a dazzling six-under-par 65 to take the first-round lead by three shots over Masters champion Charl Schwartzel and 2009 PGA champion Y.E. Yang.
"I've started getting used to these first rounds in the majors," said McIlroy, who held the first-round lead (65) at this year's Masters in April and at last year's British Open at St. Andrews (63). "I just need to keep it going."
McIlroy's last few months have provided enough life lessons to fill an after-school special. With a four-shot lead heading into the final round of the Masters, he imploded at the turn, making a triple-bogey 7 on the 10th hole before stumbling home with an 80. He accepted that bloody Sunday with grace and dignity, then proved his resiliency by finishing third in his next start at the Malaysian Open. Just last week, McIlroy showed another level of his character when he visited impoverished schoolchildren on a humanitarian mission to earthquake-ravaged Haiti.
"It just gives you a completely different view on the world and the game that you play," McIlroy said of the trip. "It [gave me] a huge sense of just being so fortunate and being able to do normal things every day."
Or, for that matter, extraordinary things.
McIlroy said he was thinking about possibly shooting a 62, the lowest round ever in a major, as he played the fifth hole (his 14th) on Thursday.
"If I could birdie that and birdie three of the last four coming in, I could have done that," he said.
It didn't happen, but the rest of his round certainly didn't lack for fireworks. His first birdie came on the par-4 12th, where he hit a sand wedge to six feet. He followed that up with a pair of birdies at the difficult 17th and 18th, also par 4s, to make the turn in 32. At the watery par-5 sixth, he barely missed an eagle try from 15 feet.
"I felt like the golf course was going to set up well for me," said McIlroy, who hit all but one green in regulation. "As I said the past couple days, it doesn't feel like a typical U.S. Open where you have to hack it out ... Even when you miss a fairway, you've got a chance to get it up around the green, and you've got a chance to make your par."
McIlroy may have made it look and sound easy, but for most players 7,574-yard Congressional wasn't. Twenty-one players broke par, but many of the biggest names in the field struggled. Phil Mickelson, in search of his first Open title after five runner-up finishes, shot a 74 that included a double-bogey on his first hole of the day, the par-3 10th. After hitting just five fairways, Mickelson summed up his round in three words: "I played horrific."
Equally disappointing was the power grouping of Luke Donald, Lee Westwood and Martin Kaymer, the top three players in the World Ranking, who shot a combined 10 over par. Donald (74) was particularly sloppy. After a pair of opening birdies, he went on to bogey 13, 14, 16 and 17, and he doubled the 18th. After hitting a 100-yard wedge shot short of the green on the par-4 fifth, the normally unflappable Englishman looked like he'd had enough. He cocked his wedge over his shoulder and took a vicious swipe at his divot.
"Goddammit," he snapped.
Congressional is a demanding test made tougher still by designer Rees Jones, who recently extended the layout by 360 yards. Jones also mowed down the grass around the fairway bunkers to snare stray balls and filled the bunkers with a fluffier sand designed to create more fried-egg lies. Still, after a drizzly morning near the nation's capital, the fairways were soft and the greens were relatively receptive.
"As easy as you're going to get," Padraig Harrington said of the layout after an even-par 71.
"There for the taking," Westwood said.
Yang wasn't shy. The South Korean began his round on the 10th, a scenic but daunting par 3 that requires a long carry over water. After both his playing partners, Ryo Ishikawa and Anthony Kim, rinsed their tee shots, Yang put on his detective cap.
"I sort of cheated and looked at the other guys and saw what they hit," Yang said. "I think they grabbed 5-irons, so I pulled out my 5-iron hybrid, and fortunately for me it was a very good hit."
Yang made birdie there, then went on to achieve a first for him in any professional round, making birdie on every par 3 on the course.
"I'm quite stoked about it," he said.
Another birdie at the par-5 sixth, paired with bogeys at 11 and 18, was good enough for the early lead.
Schwartzel, who revealed earlier in the week that he rarely leaves home without his green jacket, showed much of the form he displayed at Augusta National, where he birdied the final four holes to win. On Thursday at Congressional he made four birdies against a lone bogey, hit 15 greens in regulation, and described his ballstriking as "spectacular."
Defending Open champion Graeme McDowell also showed positive signs, posting a one-under 70. McDowell has been in a funk in 2011, partly he says because he has been overwhelmed by the attention showered on him after his breakthrough year in 2010.
"I was excited to come here," McDowell said, "but I also was excited to maybe close a chapter that was the last 12 months and try and start talking about the future rather than talking about the past."
The key for McDowell's pal McIlroy this week might be to avoid talking and thinking too much about either the past or the future. As McIlroy said after his round: "You can't be thinking about what's happened before. You've got to just be thinking about this week and how best you can prepare and how you can get yourself around the golf course.
"I don't think I should be trying to do anything differently tomorrow than I did today."
Another 65? Yep, that would do nicely.