As first impressions go, the South Course at Torrey Pines Golf Course didn’t leave a positive one on Russell Henley. A first-round 79 in the 2014 Farmers Insurance Open – which also uses the North Course here – led to a missed cut and the Georgia native opting to omit the late-January event from his annual West Coast PGA Tour itinerary.
“I don't remember [much] besides leaving the course feeling like I just got beat up,” said Henley, a three-time PGA Tour winner.
Sometimes time and a little confidence can heal old wounds.
On Thursday in the first round of the 121st U.S. Open Championship, Henley punched back. A 4-under-par 67 gave the 32-year-old the clubhouse lead, with Louis Oosthuizen, of South Africa, also at 4 under with two holes to play when Round 1 was suspended due to darkness. A 90-minute fog delay on Thursday morning led to the circumstance in which 36 players were unable to complete the round before dark.
Oosthuizen, playing in the afternoon wave, bogeyed the par-4 11th, his second of the day, before playing 5-under-par golf over the next 14 holes. Should Oosthuizen, the winner of the 2010 Open Championship at St. Andrews, maintain his position or pass Henley when Round 1 play resumes Friday at 6:50 a.m. PDT, it would be the first time he has owned the first-round lead in a major championship. He is facing a 30-footer for birdie on the par-3 eighth.
Two Europeans – 2018 Open Championship winner Francesco Molinari, of Italy, and Rafa Cabrera Bello, of Spain – shot 68s, while the group lurking two strokes back includes two-time U.S. Open champion Brooks Koepka, hometown favorite Xander Schauffele, reigning Masters champion Hideki Matsuyama and Jon Rahm, whose first PGA Tour win came at Torrey Pines in the 2017 Farmers Insurance Open.
Henley, who also shared the first-round lead in his last U.S. Open start in 2018 at Shinnecock Hills, didn’t allow the delay to the start of Round 1 affect his day, even though he hit a poor 9-iron approach to the 440-yard first hole for an opening bogey. Birdies on Nos. 5, 7 and 8 produced a front-nine 33, and his lone back-nine blemish on No. 12 was offset by three more birdies, including on the par-5 closing hole. He finished +3.97 in strokes-gained putting, a major improvement from his season average of +0.08.
“I feel like I'm a top-50 player in the world,” said Henley, who noted that some of the best performances of his career have come in the last year, despite not producing any wins. “I've had a ton of top 10s. I've been in contention. I've been really consistent.
“That doesn't mean I'm going to do that the next three days, but I definitely felt comfortable out there. I don't feel like it's a huge surprise because I do feel like I've played some good golf in some bigger events in the last year. But in terms of putting four rounds together at a U.S. Open, I've struggled with that. I'm just going to keep trying.”
Oosthuizen is certainly no stranger to U.S. Open leader boards. In his last six starts, the 38-year-old owns a tie for second (2015), a solo third (2020) and a share of seventh (2019). His metronomic swing and even-keel demeanor are ideal traits to succeed in the game’s biggest events.
He just hasn’t managed to get a second title. Oosthuizen lost a three-hole aggregate playoff in 2015 at St. Andrews to Zach Johnson, a sudden-death playoff to Bubba Watson in the 2012 Masters and tied for second in the 2017 PGA Championship at Quail Hollow in Charlotte, N.C.
“I just enjoy playing really tough golf courses,” said Oosthuizen. “I think somehow I focus a little bit better when I play those courses, knowing that the margin for error is really small. Especially around this place, you've got to drive it well, you've got to start it in the fairway, and you're going to have trouble if you're missing fairways … and I've really been driving it good lately.”
Cabrera Bello had the lone bogey-free round on Thursday. A survivor of the June 7 Columbus, Ohio, final qualifier, the Spaniard registered just his second clean card in 101 major-championship rounds. Last September at Winged Foot, the 37-year-old with six professional victories – all in Europe – opened with a 68, only to falter on the weekend and finish in a tie for 23rd. Improving that result, Cabrera Bello said, comes down to better focus.
“The fact that your concentration needs to be at 100 percent if not more on every shot,” said Cabrera Bello. “I feel like many times I just make silly mistakes because I could potentially lose concentration a second, and here [in the U.S. Open] I'm like with this sixth sense on the game, and that helps me. The fact that it's a major, it also motivates me.”
While 36 players still have to finish their opening round, Round 2 of the championship will commence – fog permitting – at 6:45 a.m. with the low 60 scorers and ties at the end of the round qualifying for the final 36 holes this weekend. Live coverage begins at 9:40 a.m. EDT on Peacock. Golf Channel picks up the action at 12:30 p.m., with NBC broadcasting 6-9 p.m. Peacock then picks up the telecast until play concludes.
· How good is Brooks Koepka in majors? The two-time U.S. Open champion has finished in the top 10 in 14 of his 28 starts. He is currently tied for fifth.
· Bryson DeChambeau opened defense of his title with a 2-over-par 73, rebounding from three consecutive second-nine bogeys from No. 11 with birdies on 14 and 18.
· Sahith Theegala, of Chino Hills, Calif., who had the honor of hitting the first ball of the championship, had some 20 friends and family members in attendance, most of whom made the morning commute from greater Los Angeles. The former Pepperdine All-American who won the 2020 Jack Nicklaus Award as the best player in college golf had a rough back nine en route to a 76.
· Reigning PGA champion Phil Mickelson, needing a U.S. Open title to complete the career Grand Slam, shot 75 one day after turning 51. Mickelson has six runner-up finishes in the U.S. Open. Last month at Kiawah Island’s Ocean Course, he became the oldest winner of a major championship.
· Day 1 of the U.S. Open also was disappointing for a few past champions. Gary Woodland (2019) shot 74, Martin Kaymer (2014) and Jordan Spieth (2015) each posted 77s, and 2012 champion Webb Simpson shot a 79, his worst result, by two strokes, in 39 U.S. Open rounds.
· Brothers Francesco and Edoardo Molinari, the 2005 U.S. Amateur champion, shot 68 and 70, respectively, putting them in position to become the first brothers to make the cut in the same U.S. Open since Joe and Masashi “Jumbo” Ozaki in 1993 at Baltusrol. It doesn’t look promising for the other brother duo in the field. Alvaro Ortiz posted an 82, while Carlos was 3 over through 15 holes.
· Of the nine amateurs in the field, Auburn University senior Andrew Kozan, of West Palm Beach, Fla., produced the best opening-day round, an even-par 71, two strokes better than 2021 USA Walker Cup competitor Pierceson Coody.
“Happy the way I putted the ball. I had a lot of confidence in it. Started pretty much everything right online where I wanted to. Like I said, I'm not the most comfortable with Poa [annua greens]. I don't enjoy putting on it, just because the ball can bounce offline so many times, but I'm not very pleased with the way I drove the ball on the back nine. Everything just kind of leaked a little right and then over-adjusted on 7 and hit it left.” – two-time champion Brooks Koepka after his first-round 69.
“I'm a real green reader and sometimes when I get even lower, I may pick up something that I missed [when I’m] hunched over or crouched over. Just like the arm lock [with my putting stroke], I'm trying to find any way to get myself an advantage.” – Xander Schauffele explaining why he sometimes lies on his stomach parallel to the ground to read putts.
“Not yet. Maybe after today.” Francesco Molinari (3-under 68) when asked if there is a friendly wager with his older brother, Edoardo, who opened with a 70.
“It's annoying, I would have liked more time in bed, to be honest. But, yeah, you're just sitting around doing nothing anyway, so it's no big deal, just re-warm up a couple times and that was it. Didn't really bother me too much.” – Matthew Fitzpatrick on the 90-minute fog delay.
“It sets up good for me. I played like this in college [at Missouri], I made a lot of pars, hit a lot of fairways and a lot of greens, so I tried to rekindle that feeling. I don't have to hit it that far. I've got to hit my shots and guys are going to hit it past me and guys are going to make more putts maybe, but I'm going to find ways to have those chances, and I'm just going to find a way to put solid rounds together, and that was the goal.” – qualifier Hayden Buckley, who competes on the Korn Ferry Tour, after carding a 69 in his first U.S. Open round.