UNIVERSITY PLACE, Wash.—Chambers Bay is not a Chamber of Horrors after all on Day One of the 115th United States Open.
Somewhere, USGA tournament director Mike Davis breathed a sigh of relief. There were fears that this very modern and slightly controversial links-like new course might prove embarrassingly difficult for the world’s best golfers, but the man who kicked off this Open knew better.
Local hero Michael Putnam, who grew up in nearby Tacoma and lives a mile-and-a-half from Chambers Bay, struck this Open’s first shot under partly cloudy skies at 7 a.m. He also called his shot. Chambers Bay was gettable, he predicted, and he was right on a lightly overcast, calm day.
“Actually, I told my brother earlier in the week someone might shoot 6-under in the first round,” said Putnam, who shot even-par 70.
Dustin Johnson three-putted his final green, the par-3 ninth, to post a five-under-par 65 and share the lead with Sweden’s Henrik Stenson after Thursday's first round. Stenson poured in a 20-footer for birdie on his final hole, the par-5 18th. Patrick Reed shot 66, Matt Kuchar and Ben Martin carded 67 and Phil Mickelson, who made the turn at three under and led much of the first morning, slipped back to 69.
Tiger Woods shot a 10-over 80—his worst U.S. Open round ever. He beat only two players on the day, and one of them was Players champion Rickie Fowler (81).
Among other notables, Jordan Spieth, Jason Day and Jason Dufner shot 68; Rory McIlroy posted 72; 15-year-old amateur Cole Hammer shot 77 with no birdies and one double bogey; and 51-year-old wonder Miguel Angel Jimenez finished at 69.
Putnam’s prediction was close to perfect. If Johnson parred his last hole, he would have finished at six under. If he birdied the last hole instead of making bogey, he would have tied the all-time major championship scoring record of 63. So good scores were in reach for those who played well enough.
“The course played about as easy as it can play,” Putnam said. “And it’s in the same condition as the practice rounds. You can get it going on the back nine. The drivable 12th, the par-5 18th and a couple of holes in between are playing pretty easy.”
Mickelson didn’t see it that way. He found three fairway bunkers on the final nine, made three bogeys and was not able to birdie the 18th. He had been a fan of the course before and he still is despite a rocky finish.
“It played terrific,” Mickelson said. “There was nothing hokey or crazy with any pin positions. I thought it was difficult. The biggest challenge is that the green speeds are different from green to green. That’s going to wreak havoc on our touch. The greens down by the water were significantly faster. I don’t know why that is but the 15th, the par 3, was quite a bit slower than the 14th, probably three feet difference on the Stimpmeter. That’s a big challenge for us.”
Bubba Watson, playing in Mickelson’s group, double-bogeyed the opening hole and rallied to shoot even-par 70. Johnson racked up six birdies and was bogey-free until his final hole.
“Today we had some pins you could get to but there were a lot of pins that were very difficult,” Johnson said. “The conditions were favorable, especially this morning. It’s definitely a little different for a U.S. Open but last year was kind of similar at Pinehurst—firm and fast and brown and I really liked that, too.”
Stenson posted seven birdies and helped solidify the view that Chambers Bay is a second-shot golf course—that is, it plays into the hands of the best iron players more than it favors the biggest hitters off the tee.
“I was striking it nicely, which led to a lot of birdie opportunities,” said Stenson. “It was a good day on the greens but especially the last five holes. I managed to slip a few in. It’s still a long journey until Sunday afternoon but a good start always helps.”
Stenson nearly had to find a replacement for his caddie, Gareth Lord, who fell on the 16th tee Wednesday and hurt his wrist. Stenson wanted to play only nine holes on Wednesday so he and two other players decided to cut over from the third hole to the 16th.
“Lord, his famous words coming down the third hole, which was a bit of a climb to get to safe ground, he said, I hope I don’t fall this week,” Stenson said. “Then, walking off 16, he got both feet in the air and landed with his wrist trapped under the bag. He’s in a cast. It might be broken or just torn ligaments. He’s not in a good place with the hand but he did a good job, anyway. I was worried.”
Stenson said Stephen Gallacher’s caddie also fell and got hurt a few holes later in the practice round after Stenson departed.
“It’s definitely dangerous with those slopes,” Stenson said. “It gets a bit like ice skating out there. The spectators are going to have to watch themselves.”
Maybe Chambers Bay really is scary after all.