LOS ANGELES — The United States Golf Association prides itself on having the most difficult test in men’s professional golf.
Thursday’s opening round of the 123rd U.S. Open at Los Angeles Country Club felt more like a practice exam.
There wasn’t a 62 recorded in a round at the U.S. Open in 122 years. On Thursday, Rickie Fowler and Xander Schauffele both did it within a 30-minute span. Fowler became the first player in U.S. Open history with 10 birdies in a single round (Justin Thomas had nine birdies and one eagle at the 2017 U.S. Open at Erin Hills in Wisconsin).
The scoring average in the first round was 71.38, the lowest in an opening round of a U.S. Open in the past 90 years, according to ESPN Stats & Information. LACC’s North Course is a par-70 course. The previous low scoring average for the first round was 72.29 at Baltusrol in Springfield Township, New Jersey, in 1993.
In addition to the pair of record scores, there were two 64s, two 65s, seven 67s and 11 68s. There wasn’t a single score in the 80s. It’s the first time in the first or second round of the U.S. Open that no player shot worse than 79, according to ESPN Stats & Information.
“When they see those two 64s, they’re probably not going to like it too much,” said Harris English, who posted a 3-under 67.
With a thick marine layer blocking the sun, the North Course’s greens and wide fairways maintained moisture and were very receptive. Unless the Santa Ana winds show up a couple of months early, there doesn’t figure to be much wind.
“The sun didn’t come out and it was misting this morning, so I’d say the greens held a little bit more moisture than anticipated,” said Schauffele, who had eight birdies in a bogey-free round. “And then the fairways are a little bit softer, too, because of that sort of overcast, and without the sun out it’s not drying out much. I think fairways are easier to hit and greens are a little bit softer.”
If the weather doesn’t change over the next three days, it’s going to be up to USGA officials to give the world’s best players a traditional stern test. And after what Fowler and Schauffele did on Thursday, most golfers expect Friday’s setup to be much more difficult.
“There’s a lot more teeth in this course,” said six-time major champion Phil Mickelson, who is 1 under after 18 holes.
The USGA won’t place the pins in the deep bunkers or barrancas, the steep-sided gulleys that litter the course, during the final three rounds. But it probably won’t be much fun the rest of the way after what happened during the first round.
“I’m sure after what Rickie did they will make it quite a bit harder for us tomorrow afternoon,” said Los Angeles native Max Homa, who carded a 2-under 68.
It won’t be the first time the USGA has made adjustments. In the opening round of the 1980 U.S. Open at Baltusrol, Jack Nicklaus and Tom Weiskopf each tied the record with 7-under 63s. After 72 holes, Nicklaus was 8 under and beat Japan’s Isao Aoki by 2 strokes.
“I imagine it’s going to get harder,” Homa said. “I kind of like this trend. It seems like at U.S. Opens lately they kind of trick us into thinking we got it and then as the weekend goes on it gets quite hard.”
Hopefully, it will be more challenging than what we saw on Thursday.
“You just wait until this place firms up,” Schauffele said. “It’s going to be nasty.”
No left-handed player has ever won the U.S. Open. Mickelson and Brian Harman have come the closest. Mickelson has been runner-up six times, while Harman tied for second at Erin Hills in Wisconsin in 2017.
Both are within striking distance at LACC, especially Harman, who posted a 5-under 65 in the first round. After a good fall, in which he was runner up at the World Wide Technology Championship and tied for second at the RSM Classic, Harman hadn’t done much since the calendar turned to 2023. He missed the cut at the Masters and the PGA Championship.
“Finally found a little bit of ball-striking,” said Harman, who hit 15 of 18 greens. “It’s been a tough go the last few months. Really had a great fall and was really hoping to kind of springboard into this year, and it’s just been kind of hit or miss. So just trying to rededicate myself and get as mad as I can and try to hit some good shots. Finally did come through today.”
Mickelson was 3 under after 13 holes, but then posted bogeys on Nos. 6 and 7. He can complete the career Grand Slam by winning the U.S. Open. He turns 53 on Friday. It was his 26th round under par at the U.S. Open, which is one shy of tying Tom Watson for second-most all-time. Nicklaus has 38 rounds under par.
“I played OK,” Mickelson said. “I made a few bad swings that cost me a few strokes, but I made a lot of good swings today. It’s a decent start and I have a chance tomorrow morning to come out and shoot a good solid round and get myself in position for the weekend.”
Sam Bennett, who was the low amateur at the Masters in April, is back on the leaderboard at a major. In just his third start as a pro, Bennett posted a 3-under 67 and is tied for seventh. His score might have been even better, but he had bogeys on his last two holes.
“I knew the front nine was gettable, and I saw there was some low [scores] out there, so I knew there was birdies to be had if you teed it in play,” Bennett said. “Pretty frustrating finish because I played solid all day, and to lose two on the last two is pretty disappointing.”
The former Texas A&M star made his pro debut at The Memorial in Columbus, Ohio, finishing 63rd, and tied for 20th at last week’s RBC Canadian Open in Toronto.
“I’m comfortable. There’s no nerves,” Bennett said. “I feel like I belong. Played the weekend at RBC, at Memorial, so that was good. Yeah, just the experience I got playing the weekend at the Open, the weekend at the Masters, I feel like I belong and I’m comfortable on this stage.”
Work to do
The North Course wasn’t easy for everybody in the 156-player field on Thursday. The 36-hole cut is the low 60 scores and ties. There are plenty of big-name players who will have to play better in the second round to stick around for the weekend, including Thomas (3 over), Tommy Fleetwood (3 over), Adam Scott (3 over), Jason Day (3 over), Tom Kim (3 over), Tyrrell Hatton (4 over) and Justin Rose (6 over).