SOUTHAMPTON, N.Y. — If golf ever dies out on this planet, the 8:02 a.m. tee at the 118th U.S. Open will surely be to blame. Phil Mickelson, Rory McIlroy and Jordan Spieth are the most glamorous grouping at Shinnecock Hills but they went out in the first round and made an absolute hash of things. The U.S. Open is supposed to be challenging; these proud champions made it look damn near impossible.
Bladed wedges, yipped putts, duffed sand shots, disastrous decisions, four-letter expletives…there was something for everyone. McIlroy hit a shot in the fescue that went maybe two yards and that wasn’t even his most embarrassing play of the day. Two holes later, at the par-5 16th, he found the sand off the tee and then blasted his next shot straight into the face of the bunker: d'oh! This was part of a wretched stretch during which he made three 6s in the span of four holes.
Mickelson avoided a signature boneheaded play but still lit up Twitter with his mouth. Standing in the middle of the 16th fairway, 70 yards short of the green, he bladed his wedge a mile over the putting surface. At impact, he loosed an un-Phil-like, "Oh s---!" which was caught by the cameras. That is sure to join his various other Open epithets, right up there with, "I am such an idiot."
Spieth, meanwhile, began his Open with a horror show. As one of the worst putters on Tour this year, according to the statistics, he needed to build some confidence early. But on Spieth’s very first hole he badly shoved a four-footer for par. Thus spooked, he rushed through a triple bogey on the next hole, misplaying a bunker shot and then having the ensuing chip roll back to his feet.
The hits just kept coming, with McIlroy going cabbage-cabbage-sand for a double bogey at the first and Spieth skeeving another pitch on the 7th hole, leading to a double of his own. When the round mercifully ended, Mickelson had shot an eight-bogey 77, which somehow beat his woebegone playing partners, with Spieth posting a 78 and McIlroy an 80. This actually represented a small victory given Rory was 10-over through 11 holes.
Afterward, none of them were eager to account for their failings: McIlroy stormed off, petulantly; Spieth tried to escape, too, but was run down by a mob of bloodthirsty reporters, to whom he offered a few clipped answers; Mickelson, after signing autographs for a while, literally jogged away from a small group of hopeful scribes before circling back to schmooze a gathering of potential business partners in a deal he’s hoping to consummate. "He's not talking today, he worn out," Mickelson’s agent Steve Loy said, while a few feet away Phil energetically offered detailed thoughts about his round to the rapacious money men.
It would be easier to dismiss these stars' struggles as just a bad day on a tough course in windy conditions were it not for the inconvenient fact that all came into Thursday’s round with a lot at stake. At our national championship Mickelson is destiny's orphan, with six crushing runner-up finishes. "I don't think my legacy will be complete if I don’t win the U.S. Open," he told me last month in a sitdown interview.
A win in Mexico in February raised hopes that Phil would contend at Augusta, but he blew himself out of the tournament there with a second-round 79, which afterward left him glassy-eyed and punchdrunk. Now, at the tournament that means the most to him, he couldn’t answer the bell, even though he hit 13 out of 14 fairways, thanks in part to a conservative strategy that had him pulling irons on many tee boxes.
"If I shoot even par tomorrow I’ll be right back in it," he told his gathering of would-be investors, just within earshot of a loitering reporter. Well, James Foulis did win a U.S. Open at Shinnecock after shooting 78 in the first round, but that was back in 1886.
Spieth's struggles were more predictable, given that in his five tournaments since the Masters he's missed two cuts and failed to finish in the top-20, keeping him winless since last July. But while his short-game miscues were the most shocking lowlights of his round, Spieth afterward was most disappointed in his long-game, saying he got out of rhythm in the wind. (He came into Shinnecock fourth on Tour in strokes gained tee-to-green.)
He alluded to the bad juju in his grouping in describing the day: "It was just blah. It wasn't fun. It wasn’t not fun. I was just blah." He went on to call a few of the pin positions "dicey." Invoking the Nicklaus Rule — whereby anyone who complains about the setup at a U.S. Open has no chance to win because they are displaying weakness — Spieth’s bid is already over. On the eve of the Open, Spieth admitted that his up-and-down play has taken a toll. "My patience has been tested," he said. And so it shall continue to be.
As for McIlroy, he has been preparing for this Open since Memorial Day. Across Long Island, there were tall tales of the heroic golf he had played en route to Shinnecock — an effortless 66 at Garden City Men’s Club, a closing burst of six straight birdies at Friar's Head. But we are now approaching the four-year anniversary of McIlroy’s last major championship victory and the one-time boy king, now 29, is trending in the wrong direction.
At this year’s Masters Sunday, he shot a jittery 74 to get curb-stomped by his playing partner Patrick Reed. McIlroy has previously complained about so-called "featured groups" — the clumping of superstars in one group, as he had to endure on Thursday. Was McIlroy bothered by his playing partners during the first round? How will he reboot for the second round? How are his U.S. Open struggles – he’s missed the cut two years running – reflective of a stalled career?
No answers were forthcoming on Thursday. The lasting image of a lost round was not any of the litany of misplayed shots. It was McIlroy fleeing from reporters, walking quickly but with nowhere to go.