PINEHURST, N.C. – Three days of practice at the new Pinehurst No. 2 was enough to make Martin Kaymer believe this would be the same old U.S. Open.
So when he walked off the course on the eve of golf’s toughest test and was asked what he would take for a score at the end of the week, he figured on 8-over par. That changed Thursday morning when he turned on his TV to watch early coverage.
Shots at the flag were checking up near the hole. He saw birdies — more than he expected.
Kaymer made six of them in the afternoon, three on the final five holes, sending the 29-year-old German to the lowest score in three Opens held at Pinehurst No. 2. He one-putted the last five holes, including a 6-foot par putt on the 18th that gave him a 5-under 65 and a three-shot lead.
“It was more playable than I thought,” he said. “I think that made a big difference mentally, that you feel like there are actually some birdies out there, not only bogeys.”
So much was made of the new look at No. 2, which was restored to its old look from more than a half-century ago. Pinehurst turned out to be more different than anyone imagined — at least for one day.
Former U.S. Open champion Graeme McDowell took the conservative route on his way to a 68 that featured 15 pars, one bogey, one birdie and one eagle. He was joined by Kevin Na, Brendon de Jonge and Fran Quinn, a 49-year-old who last played a U.S. Open in 1996, when Tiger Woods was still an amateur.
“This was a golf course where I spent the last few days just preparing myself mentally for the challenge, really, knowing that this golf course wasn’t going to give much and it was only going to take,” McDowell said. “I’m assuming they put some water on this place this morning. And we were able to take advantage of that a little bit early on and actually think about getting at some of those flags.”
The 15 players to shoot in the 60s were the most for an opening round at the U.S. Open since 24 players did it at Olympia Fields in 2003.
Phil Mickelson, in his latest quest to win the one major keeping him from the career Grand Slam, shot a 70. He was among the early starters, who received additional help by cloud cover that kept moisture in the greens.
The sun broke through shortly before noon and began to bake the course, though not enough to stop Kaymer. He watched some of the tournament on television in the morning, and he was struck by the sight of Henrik Stenson’s 6-iron into the par-3 15th only rolling out a few feet. Kaymer expected it to roll off the green.
“Last night I thought that it’s going to be very, very firm in the afternoon,” he said. “But actually, it was more playable than I thought.”
Even so, he realizes it’s only one round, and that the course probably won’t be so kind or gentle the rest of the way.