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OPINION: Top Guns Can’t Solve Vulnerable Venue

Day and McIlroy, two of the top three players in the world, struggled mightily on Thursday. (Photo Credit: Geoff Burke, USA Today Sports)

ERIN, WISCONSIN – The official U.S. Open logo at Erin Hills features a three-leaf clover patterned after an old Irish bell located on the course.

Given the way the first round played out under blue Wisconsin skies Thursday, the clover could be replaced by a happy face, though that might cut into merchandise sales.

The meanest, orneriest tournament in professional golf showed its soft side in the first round, replacing its traditional thorns for early-summer blossoms in the form of birdies where bogeys traditionally live.

OK, not for everyone – that means you, Jason Day, Rory McIlroy and Jon Rahm – but for enough players to suggest it was almost by design. Come the end of the day, 44 players had broken par, a record for a U.S. Open round.

“This feels like a Tour event right now,” Brandt Snedeker said after opening with a 2-under-par 70 that was good but not terribly special by Thursday’s standard and left him five behind perpetually cheerful leader Rickie Fowler.

RELATED STORY: Fowler Nearly Flawless In Opening Round 65

There was a time when such sentiment would send a shudder through the blue coats in charge of the golf dungeon. But not this year, not Thursday anyway, and Adam Hadwin made six straight birdies as evidence.

It almost certainly will change because this is the U.S. Open and the weather forecast continues to improve, enhancing the chance the greens that were rain-softened Thursday morning will become crusty. The wind is also expected to kick up on Sunday but for one pleasant day Erin Hills was as close to vulnerable as 7,845 yards can be.

That’s important because the USGA needs this championship to unfold where the players and the course – in that order – are the centers of attention. One day in, it’s working.

The USGA gave players 50-yard fairways to hit and it led to players hitting driver off almost every par-4 or par-5 tee, a rarity in this day. There were three par-5s of more than 600 yards and three par-4s of more than 500 yards.

It hardly seemed to matter. Distance doesn’t scare players any more. Not as far as the ball goes, but that’s another discussion entirely.

Karma kicked in with Rory McIlroy, who complained about the USGA trimming back some of the thick stuff on Tuesday. It didn’t help him as he hit just five fairways, dulling his rep as one of the game’s best with the big stick. No one hit fewer fairways Thursday.

The setup could have been more severe but it felt as if officials erred on the side of caution because no one really knew what to expect once pencils were in hand at Erin Hills. Look for a few more nasty pin positions on Friday.

Erin Hills isn’t for everyone. It has been compared to Whistling Straits but they are different. Erin Hills looks natural. Whistling Straits looks contrived. If you’re a fan of traditional U.S. Open courses – think Oakmont, Winged Foot and Olympic – you’ll get all the classics you want over the next few years.

RELATED STORY: Rory Eats His Words, Shoots 76

In the meantime, think of it this way: It’s wise to step outside the box once in awhile.

Fowler’s 7-under 65 equaled the lowest opening round in comparison to par in the 117 editions of this event. And if he keeps it right there for the next three days, Fowler might have his first major championship trophy.

“I think 7-under par is a bit ridiculous,” said Kevin Na, who shot 68 in the afternoon.

Snedeker said he would take 5-under par when he finishes Sunday and like his chances. He’s not alone.

“Augusta typically starts off Thursday really, really difficult. I think the USGA does the opposite. Gets you through two days of play then the weekend gets harder and harder and harder,” Snedeker said.

“Birdies are what you need, not pars and bogeys. It will change. I have no illusion. I would be shocked if 7-under par wins this golf tournament.”

For all the low scores posted Thursday consider the other side: Eight of the top 10 players in the world are outside the top 60 after the first round.

Day shot 79. McIlroy shot 78. Dustin Johnson shot 75.

Put it another way: The top five in the world were a combined 19-over par.

So the day belonged to others, none more than Fowler.

“It is always cool to be part of some sort of history in golf. But I’d rather be remembered for something that’s done on Sunday,” Fowler said.

One day at a time, especially in the U.S. Open.


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