SOUTHAMPTON, N.Y. — The wind whipped off of Long Island Sound, rattling corporate tents, flagsticks and nerves at Shinnecock Hills Golf Club — a course that needs no such help.
It already has a reputation as one of the game’s most difficult major championship venues, and Thursday’s opening round of the 118th U.S. Open saw the venerable, old venue at its fiercest.
A year after players beat up Erin Hills in Wisconsin with multiple sub-par scores, Shinnecock stood up to remind the world’s best that the U.S. Open can be an exercise in misery.
The course yielded the highest U.S. Open scoring average in 25 years as 29 players failed to break 80, and for the first time in 16 years there was a player who shot in the 90s. The first-round scoring average was 76.149 on the par-70 course.
Jordan Spieth was among the many who struggled, shooting a 78, his worst score in a major.
“There were certainly some dicey pins,” Spieth said. “But at the same time, there was guys that shot under par. So I could have played better.”
Charles Howell III, who shot a 71, was one of those who did play better than Spieth. That said, he knows why Shinnecock proved so challenging for so many.
“It takes every mistake you make, and just makes it all worse,” Howell said. “And with these corner hole locations, just off of crowns, it’s really difficult to get the ball close. So you find yourself playing defensive golf quite a lot.
“With these U.S. Open setups, it’s hard to recover. You never really play aggressively out here. It’s all about save yourself.”
And that is what Tiger Woods could not do. He opened with a triple-bogey 7, steadied himself through the turn, then made two double-bogeys on the back nine, 4-putting one green. He shot 78.
Then there was the marquee grouping of Phil Mickelson, Rory McIlroy and Spieth. Teeing off early and setting the early pace for the tournament, they underwhelmed with a series of blunders, some wind-induced but others simply a matter of poor golf.
The trio of multiple-major champions, who teed off the 10th hole, combined to shoot 25 over par, with McIlroy shooting 80 and Mickelson shooting 77 to go along with Spieth’s 78. Spieth had a triple-bogey on his second hole.
“I played the aggressive route and it hurts you. You can’t really do that at the U.S. Open.” Spieth said. “When you’re out of position you have to just give yourself a chance to save par, and if you make bogey, you make bogey.”
At one point, Mickelson, who along with McIlroy declined to speak with reporters after their rounds, became so exasperated when trying to play his ball from near the 12th green — where twice he had walked away from it and had trouble finding it — that he said to a rules official: “I can’t see the ball when I swing. Is there a rule that allows me to see the ball?”
There isn’t, of course, and that epitomizes the type of day faced by the field. And why a U.S. Open can be so different than weekly tour events.
“You never see 3-foot-deep rough eight feet off the fairway,” said Ian Poulter, who shot 69 to share the first-round lead with No. 1-ranked Dustin Johnson, Russell Henley and Scott Piercy. “So that’s why you’ll see the scores you see. We got a lot of crosswinds on a lot of par-4s and par-5s. It’s easy to make a mistake. And even the par-3s, you can make a double, triple extremely quickly if you get yourself short-sided.
“This is a very good golf course. It’s a very difficult golf course. And when you mix it with drying greens and a perfect day like today, it’s just going to be tough. You can’t compare it to a regular event. It’s not a regular event.”
Of the top-10 ranked players in the world, only Johnson shot par or better. They combined to shoot 52 over par.
“Balls are bouncing and releasing more than they were in the practice rounds,” said Masters champion Patrick Reed, who shot 75. “And when that happens, if you’re not spot-on absolutely every aspect of the game, you’re going to struggle.”
Then there was Scott Gregory, 23, a sectional qualifier from England playing in his second U.S. Open. He found the U.S. Open record book by shooting 92, the first score in the 90s at the tournament since 2002. Gregory made just three pars and hit only five fairways and four greens.
“I didn’t get it in play off the tee,” Gregory said, “which is obviously a big issue around here. Any rough you go in, you can’t really attack pins and get on the greens. I knew it was going to be tough. It was windy, and I’ve played in the wind before so that wasn’t the issue. The issue was I didn’t hit it on the short stuff very much.”
Among the crazier stats: Mickelson hit 13 of 14 fairways, and still struggled. He hit just 9 of 18 greens and made only one birdie.
Woods found the fairway at the first hole, one of the few easy ones on the course, then went long with his approach, failed to get his next shot on the green, putted and had it come back and made a triple-bogey 7. He also four-putted 13th green from 40 feet for a double-bogey 6.
“It’s a lot of guesswork, and you have to be patient,” said Poulter, who played his first U.S. Open at Shinnecock in 2004 and shot 83. “You’re not going to get it right all the time. You’re not going to predict the wind right all the time, and you’re not going to hit the perfect golf shot all the time.
“So all those factors add up to it being a stressful day. I guess I’m just walking off the course a little less stressed than some others.”