Former champion Rory McIlroy found form too late to avoid a second consecutive missed cut in the US Open, but was able to take some positives from his display at Erin Hills.
Playing just his seventh tournament of the year due to a rib injury, McIlroy left himself a mountain to climb following a first round of 78 on Thursday, when a record 44 players broke par.
And despite carding four birdies in his last six holes for a 71 on Friday, the four-time major winner saw his own pre-event prediction come true, having said on Tuesday that anyone who could not hit the wide fairways ”might as well pack your bags and go home”.
“I showed up for the last six holes, anyway,” said McIlroy, who won at Congressional in 2011 with a record 16-under-par total, but is now a combined 55 over par for his other eight US Open appearances.
“I definitely hit it better off the tee. I think I hit 11 fairways other than the five I did (on Thursday). But I think at the end of the day it’s competitive rounds with a card in my hand that I need and I’ve been very light on them this year.
“I saw some positives there on the back nine coming in and hopefully I can take them to the Travelers (Championship) next week. I’m excited to get on a run of golf and get going.”
McIlroy worked with his coach Michael Bannon on making a smoother transition from the top of his backswing and although he was three over par after 12 holes, birdies on the fourth, fifth, seventh and ninth ended the week on a high.
“Even though it’s very disappointing to not be here on the weekend, I think these last two rounds will serve me well going into the summer,” added the 28-year-old, who has added the Scottish Open to his schedule in between the Irish Open and Open Championship.
“I started to let it go a little bit on the back nine and showed what I can do. It didn’t matter at that point because I was so far from the cut line, but at least I know it’s in there, it’s just a matter of getting it out of me and getting myself in the right frame of mind.
“(On Thursday), coming off an injury, I was a little anxious going out there. I got off to a good start, but it sort of caught up with me as the round went on. I think the more rounds I can play, I’m hopefully going to get rid of all that stuff and hopefully strip it down to what you saw the last six holes.
“I’ve got a busy summer, so I’m excited to play a lot of golf. I feel like that’s going to help me to get back into contention and hopefully try to win some of these things.
“I’m hungry, but I’m not going to force it. I’m going to let it happen. I know if I go out and play the golf I’m capable of, good things should happen.”
Rickie Fowler scored a record-equalling seven-under-par 65 to grab the early lead in a low-scoring opening round at the US Open on Thursday as world number one Dustin Johnson struggled to make an impact.
Fowler, the world number nine from California, revelled in benign conditions at Erin Hills Golf Course to notch seven birdies and 11 pars.
With the picturesque par-72 course set up at a monstrous 7,845 yards, Erin Hills had been expected to live up to the US Open’s billing of being the toughest test in golf.
But a week of rain which has softened greens and made fairways more forgiving created an inviting start to the second major of the season.
Fowler wasted no time in exploiting the conditions after teeing off on the 10th, rattling off four quick birdies to be four under.
Two more birdies at the start of his inward nine pushed him to six under and a seventh on his 16th hole of the day saw him finish at seven under.
While the lowest opening round score at US Open is 63, Fowler’s seven under round saw him equal the record for the lowest score to par in the first round of a US Open set by Jack Nicklaus and Tom Weiskopf in 1980.
Fowler is bidding to become the seventh first-time major winner in a row with in Wisconsin this week.
Fowler led in the clubhouse from three players who finished on five under — Brian Harman, Tommy Fleetwood of England and Brooks Koepka.
A slew of players were under par as play continued.
But world number one Dustin Johnson – the defending champion and pre-tournament favourite – was struggling to get to grips with his game.
Johnson, who arrived at Erin Hills confident that the layout was tailor-made for his big-hitting style, never looked comfortable during a wayward start.
After opening with four pars the problems for Johnson began on the par-five 14th when he three-putted for a double-bogey seven.
A further bogey followed on the par-four 15th. A birdie followed on the 16th but Johnson was soon back in trouble on the 17th, twice finding the rough for this third bogey of the day.
A missed birdie putt on the 18th was emblematic of a miserable front nine. Johnson was three over for the round with three holes to play.
Masters winner Sergio Garcia and world number two Rory McIlroy had afternoon tee-times scheduled.
Meanwhile, six-time US Open runner-up Phil Mickelson confirmed his withdrawal from the tournament on Thursday as expected.
Mickelson had vowed to skip the tournament to attend his daughter’s high school graduation ceremony but had been granted a tee-time on the off-chance any delay in play may allow him to travel across the country to make the first round.
The opening morning also saw drama near the course, when an airship filming aerial images caught fire and crashed.
A pilot on board who apparently parachuted from the aircraft was being treated for injuries.
Galleries at Erin Hills looked on in disbelief as the aircraft could be seen falling from the sky.
“We were watching a group finish on 18 and beyond the green we saw the blimp falling,” witness Adam Johnson told the local Action 2 news network.
US Open officials later said the blimp was not affiliated with the tournament or the US Open broadcast.
World No1 Dustin Johnson is coming off a missed cut at the Memorial and faces an unknown in the Wisconsin course this weekend.
With this in mind, we ask: Will DJ successfully defend his US Open title at Erin Hills?
Let us know your thoughts as our two writers debate.
JOY CHAKRAVARTY, SAYS YES
Picking a winner in an elite golf tournament is as difficult as finding the proverbial needle in a haystack, unless, of course, you are talking Tiger Woods in the early and mid-2000s.
However, Dustin Johnson has shown almost Woods-like dominance and mind-set in recent months, making a mockery of quality fields and doing well in playing conditions that were thought unsuitable for his kind of golf.
The missed cut at The Memorial last week was surely a blip on what has been a phenomenal run ever since he won his first major at the US Open last year.
In 2017, Johnson has seven top-10s in 11 starts, including three wins. The MC at The Memorial could be a blessing in disguise. He will surely be eager to bounce back from that, and would be slightly more fresh coming into the tournament.
The ultra long Erin Hills course is the biggest unknown in the whole scenario. It is long, and reportedly with penal rough. It also has a bit of a links course-like feel to it. But none of this should bother the world No1. The United States Golf Association have always favoured courses with a similar set-up – narrow fairways, deep rough and fast greens – and Johnson has always managed to find his way around – evident from his performances in the past US Opens.
And given he has a second place and several top-15s in the Open Championship, the ‘linksiness’ of Erin Hills should not be much of a headache either.
Johnson not only hits it long, he also hits is straight most of the time. And his short game is as good as his long game, only under-rated because of the brilliance of his booming drives. However, the most improved aspect of Johnson’s game is his mind. That laid-back nature hides a fierce competitor. His coach Butch Harmon once said his greatest strength is his ability to completely forget his bad shots and good.
That would not only take away any pressure that comes from being the defending champion, but on a US Open golf course, where mistakes are inevitable, give him an extra edge over his other rivals.
DHRUV NAIR, SAYS NO
This year’s US Open will be played at Erin Hills, which hosted the US Amateur in 2011 and also plays to a maximum yardage of 7,800 yards.
Although the World No1 Dustin Johnson won the 2016 US Open and has the ability to smash the ball a long way, which is needed at Erin Hills, it will be tough for him to retain the title.
The main reason is the level of competition he faces, added to the fact that he missed the cut at the Memorial last week and hasn’t been his dominant self ever since he withdrew from the Masters.
My three picks to lift the championship this year are Rickie Fowler, Kevin Kisner and Jon Rahm.
In 10 individual events this season, Fowler has finished in the top-25 eight times. In the last 12 weeks, his average finishing position of 17.6 is second in the US Open field and since February, he’s been outside the Top 20 just once.
But the most remarkable thing about Fowler is on the putting surface. He is currently ranked sixth in strokes gained on the green. He also is in good form, having recently secured a second place at the Memorial, apart from his win at The Honda Classic. I feel it is safe to say Fowler can be considered a serious contender to win.
Kisner has been racking up top finishes all year – six top-10s in 17 events – and he is in red-hot form, having won the Dean & Deluca Invitational and following that up with a T6 at the Memorial. He lacks the distance required at Erin Hills, but will certainly make up for it with driving accuracy, consistent iron play and sharp putting. He’s fifth on Tour in total strokes gained which surely makes him a dark horse.
Jon Rahm, also known as ‘DJ Lite’, has been especially good when he can let it rip, and with an average driving distance of 305 yards, he ranks 12th on Tour in driving distance. The talented 22-year old won the Farmers Insurance Open and has been notching impressive performances all year which makes him another favourite.
Johnson is a definite powerhouse but because of the unbelievable level and pedigree of golfers playing this week, he won’t win.