A grinding Graeme McDowell birdied his last two holes for a one under 69 that left him tied for second and just three shots off the lead after a punishing opening day at the US Open on a hard and fast Olympic Club.
But while the 2010 champion proved he’s one of the toughest and cleverest operators out there, defending champion Rory McIlroy showed that he’s got a lot to learn about grinding out a score as he slumped to a seven over 77 that leaves him in danger of missing the cut.
The 23-year old world No 2 promised before the start that he would attack the course with his driver and try to glean as many birdies as possible to offset the inevitable bogeys.
But he was never in position to do that and made just one - at the par three 13th - and hit just seven fairways in his worst opening round as a professional for more than five years as debutant Peter Lawrie carded a 74 that could easily have been four shots better.
McIlroy also took the option not to face reporters after his round and instead made his comments to a USGA official in private, explaining that he simply could not get himself in position to score.
Playing in the marquee afternoon group with world No 1 Luke Donald and No 3 Lee Westwood, few would have predicted that they would make just three birdies between them. Westwood had two in a three over 73 while Donald had none in a lacklustre 79.
“I didn’t I got off to a decent start and then it’s just so tough here if you put yourself out of position at all,” said McIlroy, who bogeyd the first, fifth, seventh, ninth and 12th before making his only birdie of the day at the 13th. “It’s so tough to make your pars from there.
“Too many times I just was in the wrong position off the tee or with my second shot and it makes it very difficult. You know, when you’re trying to play catchup on this golf course it’s very hard. I was able to make one birdie out there today. I need to try to make more tomorrow and limit the mistakes.
“But you have to be so precise. Anything just a little off and it really punishes you. You have to be precise with your tee shots and your iron shots and leave it on the right side of the pins and today I didn’t really do any of that.”
McIlroy needed a good finish to keep alive his hopes of retaining the title but instead bogeyed the 15th, 17th and 18th to finish the day tied for 109th in the 156 man field as 29-year old Michael Thompson hit a morning 66 to take a three stroke lead in his first major as a professional.
“I tried to go out there and shoot the best score I could,” McIlroy said. “And today wasn’t my greatest day, but hopefully I can come out tomorrow morning and try and shoot a good one and at least try to be here for the weekend.”
Thompson birdied six of his last 12 holes to lead by two from Tiger Woods, Justin Rose, David Toms, Nick Watney and McDowell as just eight other players matched par.
“The way I look at it is I’ve always kind of flown under the radar,” said Thompson. “Obviously, my name’s in the spotlight, but a lot of people don’t know who I am. And I’m totally okay with that because I’ve always been a player that just kind of hangs around.
“I don’t give up very easily and I’m very proud of that. Give Tiger the spotlight. I don’t care. I’m going to go out and play my game. If I go out and putt the way I did today I’ll be in contention.”
McDowell got off to a great start on the tougher front nine when he parred his first six holes and followed a bogey at the driveable seventh with a great par save at the eighth, where he pulled his tee shot well left but holed an 18 footer for his par.
A bogey at the 12th left him one over par but he dug deep and finished in style with birdies at the 17th and 18th.
“I actually had four great looks at birdie coming in there,” McDowell said of his last four holes. “I had it eight feet on 15, had it probably 12 feet on 16, missed those both. Then I made a great upanddown from the front trap on 17 and managed to cozy it in there about 15 feet on the last and probably made one of my longest putts of the day. Very happy the way generally I played today. I hit it in a lot of fairways, and I hit it on a lot of greens and controlled things pretty well.”
After hitting 10 of 14 fairways and 13 greens, McDowell added: “It’s a nice start. And you want to get a little bit of momentum early this week if you can because if you let this golf course beat you up early in the week it will just continue to do that.
“You can’t really kind of start firing at pins out there. You’ve just got to plod your way around. And you’ve really got to just my goal going out there today was that if I got in trouble just to take my medicine, get out of dodge with bogey if I can and I did that fairly well today.”
Lawrie made an impressive US Open debut but still walked away disappointed with a four over 74.
After a great par save from five feet at the ninth, he birdied the 10th and 11th from inside five feet to share second place briefly but then bogeyed the par-three 13th off a bunkered tee shot and played the remainder in five over par as conditions toughened considerably for the afternoon starters.
“It was very hard to pick the right clubs today the way the wind was blowing,” Lawrie said. “Every time I got the opportunity to pick the wrong club I did it.”
He added: “I played nicely and anytime you play nicely you are disappointed when you walk off with 74. But it is not the end of the world. I’ll come out tomorrow and who knows, the weather conditions may be a little bit easier in the morning, a little bit softer, and I can post a score. I noticed a lot of the scores were done this morning so hopefully I can shoot a score tomorrow.”
One under par after his first nine holes, Lawrie overshot the 18th by a yard and bogeyed there before dropping futher shots at the first, second, fifth and sixth.
He birdied the seventh to get back to three over par but bounded through the back of the par-three eighth off a fine tee shot and knew he was “dead”, scooting 20 feet past the pin with his attempted recovery from thick rough, finishing the day tied for 52nd.
“A lot of times I just got caught out from nowhere,” Lawrie said, adding: “You can’t really go for anything. You can’t play attacking golf. You have to play strategic golf.”