BETHESDA, Md. — If there's one word that represents Thursday at the AT&T National, it's "penal." That's what all the players are saying about the rough here at Bethesda that is playing more like it did during the U.S. Open in 2011 than most players expected.
After a two-under 69 that got him into an eight-way tie for fifth place, Jim Furyk told Sirius Radio he was a bit "surprised" by the scores. "The greens are receptive. . . It wasn't overly breezy; we got the cloud cover to keep the moisture in the golf course, but it's just a long hard golf course."
Enter Mr. Simplicity-first round leader Roberto Castro who turned in a five-under 66 by. . .well, just staying out of the rough.
"You just have to drive it in the fairway," said Castro, who also led after the first round of the Humana Challenge and The Players Championship. "The rough I feel like is longer than last year so drive it in the fairway and you'll have a chance to make birdie. You hit it in the rough, you're going to have some par saves to make."
And, boy, did he ever. On the eighth hole, Castro's drive went well right, and he didn't have a clear look back toward the fairway. So he took the slightly less conventional route and pitched out even further to the right to the ninth tee box. From there, he wrapped up his adventure with a 60-yard wedge shot to seven feet, which he made for par. All in a days work.
Castro, who was also aided by a great putting day, added that "you could tee up the U.S. Open here tomorrow," but he seemed intimidated by neither the course nor the leaderboard. On having to hold off major champions like Furyk, Angel Cabrera (70), and Vijay Singh (70) along with a host of others playing great golf this time of year, Castro said he's feeling more comfortable with it than he has in the past when he squandered leads in big spots.
"You look at these guys who have won multiple times; they had to start somewhere, and I'm in that boat right now."
He most certainly is. The only question is, can the lanky red-headed Texan hang on?
AUSSIE! AUSSIE? AUSSIE?
With a diminished field after the withdrawals of Tiger Woods (elbow) and Justin Rose (rest), supplemented today by early exits from Rory Sabbatini (back) and Davis Love III (hip), the buzz at Congressional seemed to fall upon the Australian threesome of Adam Scott, Jason Day, and Marc Leishman. It didn't take long, however, for the spotlight to fall straight on Day, the runner-up two weeks ago at Merion, who emerged from the clubhouse with a wrapped right wrist.
Nevertheless, and even as Scott (73) and Leishman (75) faded, Day hung around. Perhaps fueled by an immensely important win for his home state's rugby team earlier this week, Day labored through six missed fairways and four visits to greenside sand traps en route to a one-under-70 that sees him tied for thirteenth.
"It only hurts through impact. . .especially when I'm hitting uphill shots or out of a bunker," he said while signing autographs-with his strained wrist-for delighted fans. "But it's okay. I'm not complaining about it. I just gotta watch it."
While Day lamented that his fellow countrymen struggled, he said everyone seemed to enjoy the afternoon. Walking off the tenth green, Scott enthusiastically indulged one spectator in an "Aussie, Aussie, Aussie" chant much to the crowd's pleasure.
They'll do it again, albeit hopefully with better results, tomorrow morning at 7:27 a.m.
HORSCHEL IN A FAMILIAR SPOT
There's just something about Billy Horschel and the first round this year.
Competing at Tiger Woods' event for the third time in his career, although still looking for his first made cut, Horschel came into the clubhouse as the morning leader after an electric start that included a 51-foot birdie on No. 10, his first hole of the day, and back-to-back birdies on No. 12 and No. 13.
The momentum stalled from there, however, as Horschel found himself routinely in Congressional's nearly-Open-thick-rough and struggled to find greens in regulation. Thanks to two impressive sand saves at the seventeenth and the first though, he managed to hold steady for the final 14 holes finishing tied with for second with Bud Cauley and Graham DeLaet at three-under-par 68.
"This year, I've worked hard on my short game and my putting. When I do miss one offline, I can get it up and down on a regular basis," he told PGATour.com after his round.
This isn't new territory for the former Florida Gator. Horschel is averaging a 69 on Thursdays this year and this was actually just his eighth best opening round this year. It also marks the sixth time this year he goes into Friday inside the top ten although he has only one win to show for it.
Despite his late round struggles, Horschel, who seemed to have a hop in his step all day, still is looking up. "The tougher the course, the better I play," he said. "Those U.S. Opens usually, and when I won earlier Zurich [Classic of New Orleans] this year. . . you can only build confidence in that."