PINEHURST — If there was a day made for players to post low scores, Thursday was it.
With the mixture of the USGA watering the greens in the morning before the opening round as well as overcast skies, it wasn’t surprising to see the field throwing low numbers on the scoreboard. Even in the afternoon when USGA officials were hoping for firmer and faster conditions on the greens at Pinehurst No. 2 — it didn’t happen.
One player — Martin Kaymer — found the afternoon conditions to his liking. The 2010 PGA Champion had six birdies and a lone bogey on his scorecard. His 5-under 65 total of the day was the lowest score in nine U.S. Open rounds at Pinehurst No. 2.
From when the first two groups went out at 6:45 a.m., there was a buzz that this was going to be a go-low type of day.
Sweden’s Henrik Norlander, one of the first players to tee off, fired an even-par 70. Norlander started off on the back nine and found a rhythm after making the turn, recording birdies on holes 1, 4 and 5 to get 3-under. Norlander was flirting with posting an eye-popping first-round score before consecutive bogeys on 6, 7 and 8 erased those hopes.
Kevin Na experienced highs-and-lows during his opening round, but was able to pull it together to share the early lead with Graeme McDowell. Both shot a 2-under 68, but did it in every different ways. McDowell was the more steady of the two, carding 15 pars, a birdie, a bogey and an eagle on the par 5 fifth. Na, on the other hand, had three bogeys, three birdies and like McDowell, an eagle on the 5th hole.
“That eagle on 5 was definitely the turning point of my round, to get it 2-under par. I hit a good drive, good 3-wood, just a little long right and it was a simple chip,” Na said. “But at the same time, you hit that thing a little too firm over the hill, it can go off the green. Obviously, it’s not a thought you want to have in your mind, but it was definitely in the back of my head. I hit a great chip, just clipped it perfect and it was nice to see that fall in for an eagle.”
USGA officials claim they don’t have a a magical score in mind when they set up a course. However, looking back at recent results in this event, a good bet is even par would win a player a lot of money and more times than not — the U.S. Open Trophy.
Almost to a man, golfer after golfer walked off Pinehurst No. 2 Thursday knowing conditions will get tougher and Thursday was the day to post a low score. McDowell believes the winner may only get 10 or 12 birdies this week.
“You aren’t going to make 20 birdies out here, it’s simple as that,” he said.
Rory McIlroy, who won the U.S. Open at Congressional in 2011, hoped to do a little better than that McDowell’s magic number of 12, but understands birdies will be difficult to come by.
“My goal coming into this week was somewhere around 15, like maybe four a day. I made two today,” McIlroy said. “It’s sort of looking at past U.S. Open winners at similar courses, where the winning score has been around winning par. I think Justin Rose made 14 or 15 birdies last year at Merion. So somewhere around there is a good amount of birdies. But it all depends. It’s inevitable that you’re going to make some bogeys and make some mistakes out here. You have to limit those as much as you can.”
Despite a first-round 71, McIlroy was pleased with the way he struck the ball from tee to green, it was just when he was hitting with the flat stick when things got a little tricky. He averaged 2.4 putts when hitting the green in regulation.
“The only thing I was frustrated on was more the speed of how I hit the putts,” McIlroy said. “It wasn’t so much they missed, even if they had of missed, but if they were a better speed I would be a bit more happy with that. As I said, just work on that for tomorrow. And if I can get the speed dialed in a little bit more then hopefully I’ll be right there over the weekend.”
Reach sports editor Shawn Stinson at 910-997-3111, ext. 14 or on Twitter @scgolfer.