SOUTHAMPTON, N.Y. — There are many distinct ways to tell, as a viewer, you are watching a brutally difficult U.S. Open setup. Usually it involves ankle-deep rough and greens that react like concrete, but as Erin Hills showed us last year, even those features aren’t always the best indicator there will be carnage.
The biggest tell is always what is happening on the players’ faces. They grimace, they clench their jaw, they growl at their golf ball when it’s still in the air and drifting off line. No matter how good they are at controlling their temper, all them engage in some version of what ought to be known as The U.S. Open Sigh.
The U.S. Open Sigh goes something like this: When your ball comes to rest (at last), you inhale deeply, your shoulders rising as your lungs fill with air, then you exhale slowly, hoping that long and measured breath will assuage your frustration before it morphs into rage. Some players look up at the clouds when they sigh, others stare down their caddies. If you get a particularly bad break, or try a particularly foolish shot, you might close your eyes, yank on the bill of your hat, and sigh in the direction of your shoes.
On Thursday, Rory McIlroy, Phil Mickelson and Jordan Spieth all did some version of The U.S. Open Sigh. All three men came into the 118th U.S. Open with the belief they might be contenders for this championship, and now it will be an impressive feat if any of them sees the weekend.
McIlroy shot an 80, which at 10-over is the worst round of his career in relation to par at a major. Spieth shot a 78, a big chunk of that coming courtesy of a triple-bogey he made on his second hole of the day. Mickelson’s 77 was, improbably, the low round of their group, but it still likely means his quest to complete the career Grand Slam, barring a miracle, will have to wait another year. Together, they were a combined 25 over par.
If you’re the kind of golfing masochist who didn’t enjoy seeing Brooks Koepka make bushels of birdies at Erin Hills last year, if you enjoy it when the best players in the world look mortal and demoralized, it’s likely you’ll enjoy the rest of this championship. It might get even more difficult over the weekend. At Erin Hills, there were 60 players under par after round 1. Here, at Shinnecock Hills, you have four. You also have someone, Scott Gregory, who shot 92. You have Jason Day with 79, Tiger Woods with 78, Bubba Watson with 77 and Koepka with 75. All told, the top 10 players in the world combined to shoot 52 over par.
McIlroy, Mickelson and Spieth — who have a combined 12 majors between them — looked equal parts dazed and exasperated as they finished up their round. Mickelson and McIlroy blew off the media on their way to lunch, perhaps not seeing the point in dissecting a round they’d love to forget. Spieth slowed down just long enough to recount what happened on No. 11, a devilish 159-yard par-3 often described as one of the world’s most difficult short holes.
“Just tried to do a little too much and it bit me,” Spieth said.
The trouble started when Speith flared an iron in the front bunker, and he tried to hit it close once he saw he had a decent lie in the sand. His ball went maybe a yard past the pin, then danced on the crest of the hill for almost a full second before it trickled over the back of the green. His third shot — chipping up the hill — ended up short, and trickled back to his feet. His fourth shot, a putt, barely made it on the green. Two putts from there resulted in a ghastly 6. As he walked to the 12th tee, Spieth sighed like a man who’d just dropped his phone and his car keys and watched them tumble into a storm drain.
“I didn’t want to be 12 feet below the hole so I went the aggressive route, and you just can’t do that,” Spieth said. “If you get out of position, you have to give yourself a chance to make par, and if you make bogey, OK, you make bogey. But I made 6, and from there you’re just trying to shoot a score to stay in the golf tournament.”
Not long after his round ended, Spieth marched over at the range with a club in his hand, but stopped once he got there to have an intense discussion with Cameron McCormick, his swing coach. He was going to practice, but it was clear, before doing that, he needed to blow off steam.
McIlroy’s implosion wasn’t as dramatic as Spieth’s, but he struggled mightily off the tee, repeatedly driving it in the knee-high fescue. His first nine holes included four bogeys, two double bogeys and endless sighs of dismay. On the 14th, McIlroy’s drive found the fescue right of the fairway and, after a lengthy search, he discovered it resting in such a miserable lie, his only choice was to wedge it out sideways. He ended up moving the ball less than five feet, had to wedge out sideways again and made a double bogey.
On the 16th, his second shot came to rest near the lip of a bunker, and, perhaps sensing he needed to do something to turn things around, he gambled, hoping he could still reach the green in regulation. Instead, McIlroy hammered his approach into the face of the bunker, resulting in a bogey on the easiest hole on the course. Though he won this event in 2011 when it was held at Congressional Country Club, he is now in danger of missing the cut at this event for the third consecutive year.
Mickelson came into this tournament more of a sentimental favorite than a realistic one. Though he finished second here in 2004, and has finished second in the U.S. Open six times, it’s looking more and more like all his best chances are behind him. He sighed throughout the day as his putts came up short, and he sighed when his irons flew the green time after time, leaving him yet another impossible up and down.
It was the sigh of a man who has seen rounds like this before, seen difficult U.S. Open setups and nearly bested them, but always left disappointed. As he made his way toward player dining, Mickelson ran his hand through his thinning hair and sighed one last time, his body language describing his mood in a way words never could.