There is precious little that could switch the discussion around golf from matters of Saudi Arabia, a rebel tour and the resulting grisly civil war. A Rory McIlroy success at this US Open is, however, among the topics that would trigger even a brief change of theme. So far, so good.
On day one at the Country Club there were flashes of McIlroy brilliance and flashes of McIlroy frustration. A three-under-par 67 was sufficient to tie the clubhouse lead before the afternoon wave took to the course. From that group, the Canadian Adam Hadwin emerged to sit at the leaderboard’s summit at minus four.
McIlroy smashed a bunker in anger at the 5th before saving par. He tossed his club away on the 9th (his 18th) after missing the green from the middle of the fairway. There was to be no salvation there: the closing bogey was McIlroy’s sole aberration of the round.
“Some of these reactions that you saw out there today, whether it be hitting the sand on five or the club throw on nine, you just have to be so precise and so exact at this tournament maybe compared to some others that any little thing that doesn’t quite go right, you’re putting yourself behind the 8-ball,” McIlroy said. “The margins are just so fine in this tournament and I think you can see that out there with some of the reactions.”
On the 5th, McIlroy’s tee shot had stuck in horrible rough alongside a bunker. He had to stand in the sand trap, with his shot advancing just yards and into another one. And yet the outcome was a per four. McIlroy had kept his card clean in equally impressive style after finding dense grass at the par-three 2nd. Birdies arrived at the 16th, 18th, 7th and 8th.
“You feel like you’re right in the tournament from the start of the week, which is nice,” said the four-time major winner. “I’m going into tomorrow with the mindset of ‘Let’s keep it going’ rather than where is the cut line or whatever. If you don’t get off to a great start those thoughts start to creep in – ‘OK, what do I need to just be here for the weekend?’ It’s certainly a different mindset when you get off to a good start. I’ve just got to keep it going.”
The Northern Irishman had been irked at the pace of play by the group ahead, consisting of Scott Stallings, Davis Riley and Victor Perez. “The guys in front of us were playing so slow,” McIlroy said. “They were like a hole or hole and a half behind the group in front of them. So yeah, that was a little frustrating.” Locker room interactions between the parties may have been worth seeing.
Every McIlroy press conference is now laced with questions about his role as a staunch defender of the PGA Tour in the face of LIV Golf and its breakaway threat. There are already signs McIlroy is a little uncomfortable with being put on a pedestal. “It’s been eight years since I won a major and I just want to get my hands on one again,” he said in response to whether being the moral compass of his professional domain has intensified his desire to win.
“I’m just being me. I’m living my life. I’m doing what I think is right and trying to play the best golf that I possibly can. I wasn’t asked to be put here. I wasn’t trying to be in this position. I’m just being me.”
David Lingmerth, Joel Dahmen, MJ Daffue and Callum Tarren joined McIlroy on three under par. Tarren, who started this week as the world No 445, arrived in Massachusetts from Toronto on Saturday without his clubs. “There were five other players on my flight,” Tarren said. “They all got golf clubs. It is the second US Open I’ve played in and second time with no golf clubs.
“This time I got them a little bit faster than last. I didn’t actually get them until Wednesday in Pebble Beach a few years ago, so that was a nightmare. Luckily there was somebody in Canada who went to the airport and gave the airport staff a little kick, and they arrived on Sunday at 2pm. It wasn’t bad.”
Jon Rahm, the defending champion, opened strongly with a 69. Adam Scott matched that score while Aaron Wise, who was cracked on the head by a stray drive during last month’s US PGA Championship, may find himself with fonder memories of this major after posting a 68. Jordan Spieth, who struggled with a stomach bug on Wednesday, could fare no better than 72.
Phil Mickelson, who has been at the forefront of all things LIV, received no heckling on the opening tee. The applause, though, was subdued and short-lived; Mickelson took 78 first round shots.