Fergus Bisset reflects on an exciting first day at Pinehurst
I generally find it rather difficult to get excited about golf tournaments on day one. The finishing line seems such a distant prospect and too often I’ve got my hopes up because a favourite player is in the mix after about 20 minutes of TV coverage, only for them to fall off a precipice as soon as I start to think this might be their year.
But the U.S. Open had my attention from the moment I turned on the telly yesterday afternoon. Principally because I absolutely love the look of Pinehurst No. 2. To see a U.S. Open that isn’t a pure hack-fest is so refreshing. The scrubby areas off the fairways are great hazards. If the ball strays into them, the players are likely to have some sort of shot. But it’s pot luck as to what they’ll be able to do. They might catch a lie, as Graeme McDowell did on the 18th and be able to get club on ball. Although, they might find it nestling in a thatch of the wiry, native grass, or in one of the softer sandier areas, and from those spots getting back to the fairway is the primary objective.
The fairways are generous though, so if you miss them and end in the sandy scrub, you probably deserve to be punished to a certain extent. The greens and surrounds are punishing, but not totally ridiculous. Missing on the correct side of the pin is important, but even when the players short-sided themselves there were opportunities for a flamboyant recovery shot. The young amateur Matthew Fitzpatrick, en-route to an excellent 71, played an incredible bunker shot from the side of the 17th green that looked impossible until he pulled it off. I was pretty impressed by him – particularly on the 8th (his 17th) when he had to call a penalty on himself after the ball moved when he addressed a chip shot. He didn’t get cross or upset, just accepted that it had happened, got on with the shot and made a superb up-and-down to drop just one stroke.
Fitzpatrick’s playing partner Justin Rose must have been looking on rather jealously as both the young amateur and the third man in their group – short-game Maestro Phil Mickelson, displayed a dazzling array of pitches and chips around the convex Pinehurst putting surfaces. Rose, for all his technical skill, played a few shots around the greens that looked like those of a man who’d run out of ideas. On more than one occasion he resorted to the 3-wood. It’s ok, and looks quite clever once in a while, but repeated use suggests a player is feeling a bit nervous about laying a lofted club behind the ball on such tight lies. (And, frankly, it was all too reminiscent of Todd Hamilton at Troon in 2004, and none of us like remembering that.)
Suspicions of Rose’s pitching fragility were confirmed on his 17th hole (the 8th) when he completely duffed a chip shot from just short of the putting surface. It was an absolute shocker – too long a swing, a deceleration and a total fat, he shifted the ball about 10 feet and was lucky not to hit it twice. It was the kind of pitch shot I’m inclined to play when the pressure is on. Thankfully for Rose he didn’t follow it with the knife through the back, which is what I would generally tend to produce after a chunk. In fact, he changed the type of shot he was playing and executed a nice little bump and run to tap-in distance. In the end I think he did pretty well to post a 72.
He’s only seven behind tournament leader Martin Kaymer and only four behind those in second place on two-under-par. It’s an incredibly packed leaderboard. If you take Kaymer out of the picture, there are 86 players separated by just five shots. It’s pretty wide-open and I can’t wait to see what happens tonight. Kaymer looks back to his brilliant best and that’s great to see and great news for the European Ryder Cup side.
Not such good news in the form of Luke Donald. He looked a bit lost at sea out there last night. He’s made these swing changes and they don’t really seem to have worked, but more worrying – he was missing short putts. He used to be absolutely rock solid from five feet. I saw him miss one that he could have kicked in. Hopefully he’ll come out firing today.
Sky coverage starts at 2 this afternoon. I wonder if I can watch a full 10 hours? I’ve just asked my wife, and she says no. Shame.