Rory McIlroy ended a miserable run of opening day form in the US Open with his first sub-par round since he won the title in 2011.
The Holywood star (30) took advantage of receptive and almost windless early conditions at Pebble Beach and carded a three-under 68 to finish the day just three shots behind Justin Rose, who had an outstanding scrambling round on a day when scoring was more like the AT&T Pebble Beach Pro-Am than a US Open with 39 players breaking par and 27 shooting in the sixties.
They included McIlroy, who posted the kind of opening round he has been crying out for after failing to break par and shooting an accumulative 36-over par on the opening day in the seven US Opens he’s played since his incredible, eight-shot victory at Congressional Country Club in 2011.
All four of his major wins have come on the heels of opening rounds in the sixties and he’s now got the perfect platform to go on and challenge for major number five after an excellent day.
“I did what I had to do,” said McIlroy, who played well within himself and had an excellent day on the greens, gaining 2.82 strokes on the field with the putter to lie 10th for putting . “I hit it in the fairways for the most part, I hit a lot of greens and even when I didn’t hit some greens I was able to get it up and down.
“I feel like I did everything you need to do in a US Open. I stayed patient.
"I bogeyed the first hole and then played really solid golf after that — four under for my last 17 without a bogey.
“I did what you are supposed to do at a US Open — made lot of pars, chip off the birdies when you can and it was a good day's work.”
He knows it is important not to give himself too much to do too early, adding: "It's important for everybody but especially trying to get my way back to winning these big events it is important
“In the first two majors this year I shot 73 at Augusta and over par at Bethpage as well and it's so hard to chase, especially when courses are so tough
"To get off to such a good start you are right in the tournament from the start which is a nice position to be in.”
Out in one-under 35, McIlroy made a big move at the 502-yard second, rolling in a 12 footer for birdie there before shrugging off an indifferent wedge to 22 feet at the third by rolling in the birdie putt.
He was up to tied second now and just two strokes behind Scott Piercy and while he was irritated to lip out from 10 feet at the fourth for a birdie-hat-trick, he looked likely to drop a shot at the fifth but walked away with a bonus par-three, hacking his recovery from rough onto the fringe before making a 15 footer for his par.
He was in trouble again at the tough eighth but after flying the green into thick rough, he played a deft recovery to seven feet and confidently rapped in the par putt.
It was just the opening round McIlroy wanted but it wasn’t all plain sailing from the start.
As playing partner Jon Rahm opened with three successive birdies on the back nine, McIlroy tugged his 200-yard approach into a deep greenside bunker at the 10th before two-putting from 24 feet for an opening bogey.
Regulation pars followed at the 11th and 12th before he made a 14 footer up the hill for birdie at the 447-yard 13th to get to within two shots of the Spaniard, who would eventually settle for a 69 that left him tied Marc Leishman, Spaniard Adri Arnaus and 2014 winner Martin Kaymer.
Every round has its key moments and McIlroy came through a test at the 15th, where he drove into a fairway bunker left, came up just short of the green and then made a curling, left-to-right 10 footer to save par.
He showed his class at the iconic, 216-yard 17th, rifling his tee shot high into the grey sky, leaving himself a 10 footer he calmly rolled in for a two.
While he had to scramble for par at the 18th, blasting driver into right rough and then scuttling his layup from the deep rough into the fairway bunker on the left, he resolved his problem with a low spinning pitch from just short of the green that left him a simple par putt inside three feet.
He turned in 35, but he soon got motoring with that excellent front nine to give himself the perfect start.
“I think my average the first round in the last three years of this tournament is always 76.2. So I'm happy with this,” McIlroy said. “It's my first round in the 60s at a US Open since Chambers Bay in 2015. But it was out there. Benign conditions. It's a very soft start to a US Open, which is a good thing, because you're completely in control of the golf course.
“They can do whatever they want with it from here. It's not as if you're starting with a course that's in the condition like a Sunday and then you get three days and it sort of starts to get away from you. If they want to dial it up and make it a little bit further, they just don't have to put much water on it tonight and we'll come out tomorrow and it will play a little bit trickier. From the scores I'm seeing, that's really what I expect for tomorrow.
“The fairways are very slow. The greens are quite soft still. But in terms of the setup, there's some generous -- I'm looking at the 13th fairway here. It's 50 yards wide, 45 yards wide from left-to-right. There's generous targets out there still.
“But all this golf course needs is just a little tweak here and there, and it can play a lot more difficult. So while the conditions are this benign and the golf course is still sort of soft and slow, you need to take advantage of it, and thankfully I did today.”
McIlroy decision not to make the same mistake he made last year at Shinnecock Hills and over-prepare has paid off so far,
”I could have came here last week and played this golf course to death, but it wouldn't have done me any good,” he said.
“I needed previous experience with that to teach me that. I don't think there's any substitute for getting a card and a pencil in your hand and going out and trying to shoot a score under tournament conditions.”
His strategy is simple, he explained.
“I said yesterday I had a great table with Brooks and Jordan [at the Champions Dinner] and just sort of talking to them, how they're going to play the golf course. These greens are, on average, the smallest that we play all year. I think they're 3500 square feet is the average. So the unanimous decision was if you hit the middle of the greens all week, you're not going far wrong. I know it's important most weeks, but especially this week, just keep it in the fairways and keep hitting greens, and you're going to be okay.
“I think this golf course has a really good flow to it whenever you do tee off 10. Because you've got 10. But then really you've got some clear road ahead where you can -- you have some chances.
You've got wedge on 11, wedge on 13, par-5 14, wedge on 15, wedge on 16. Par-5 18. Wedge on 1. Wedge on 3. So you have -- you can get a little bit of momentum going if you play well.
So where I feel the way the course plays from the first hole, it's sort of a little more -- you've got little -- two- or three-hole stretches where you can make some birdies, but then you've got like -- even today 8 and 9, they're two really tough finishing holes. So -- but, yeah, I fully expected that the front nine is a nine where you can make a score, for sure.
It was also the perfect start for nearly-man Fowler, who has had eight top-five finishes in majors without winning, including three runner-up finishes.
He was second to Martin Kaymer in the US Open at Pinehurst and McIlroy in The Open at Hoylake in 2014 and second again behind Patrick Reed in the Masters last year.
But he looks like a man on a mission after making six birdies in a five-under 66 to lead by a shot in the clubhouse before Rose came in with that 65 late in the day, single putting 11 times, including the last three greens.
Rose had just 22 putts in the afternoon and he’ll be hoping to take advantage of early morning conditions in round two and build on his platform.
“I wouldn't say it's exhilarating, because I feel like my mindset is I am in a 72 hole tournament,” Rose said after after outscoring Tiger Woods, whose irons were as poor as his putting brilliant, by five shots.
“This is just a very small step towards outcome. So you don't feel like that buzz that you would on a Sunday, but you can't help but look around over your shoulder, and dam, this is Pebble Beach. Shot 65 and you're in the U.S. Open. It's a cool moment. Whatever transpires the rest of the week, it was a cool moment.”
Brooks Koepka raced to four-under through six holes but struggled after that at times and shot at 69 while Woods was wild from tee to green but brilliant with the putter.
“That was a grind. Wow. As you know, Pebble Beach, you have like the first seven holes and you can get it going, and then after that it's a fight. And I kind of proved that today. Just kind of hung in there.
“I feel like I putted well. I was trying to just kind of hang in there today. It was just one of those days. And Rosie proved that the golf course can be had.”