Justin Thomas raised a few eyebrows recently when he called Winged Foot Golf Club “fun.”
He didn’t mean he’d be smiling on his way around the spectator-free Mamaroneck, N.Y., layout during the 2020 U.S. Open. He was talking more about the challenge of making tough pars on a course that traditionally showed no mercy during the previous U.S. Opens it has hosted.
If scores are the judge, Thomas had the most fun of anyone during the opening round Thursday in the 120th national championship, firing a 5-under-par 65 to take a 1-stroke lead on a day when some favorable hole locations allowed the course to be there for the taking.
Former Masters champion Patrick Reed aced the 166-yard seventh hole and finished a shot back at 66, where he was deadlocked with 21-year-old Matthew Wolff and Belgium’s Thomas Peeters. Lee Westwood, 47, who has five top-five finishes in his career in the U.S. Open, stood at 67 along with 2010 champion Rory McIlroy and Louis Oosthuizen.
In all, 21 players broke par during the round, and another 11 matched it. It was quite the about-face for Winged Foot, where the winning score in its last U.S. Open in 2006 was 5-over par.
Of course, that’s not to say the greens will be as receptive and the pins will be easily accessible. But for one day, the best players capitalized on the conditions.
“The greens are very soft,” Thomas said. "I thought they’d be a little firmer, but I also understood that they need to err on this side so they can get them how they want this weekend. We had soft conditions this morning … good scoring conditions.
“It’s still Winged Foot. You’ve still got to hit the shots. That kind of was my game plan going into this week. I need to respect the course, but if I’m driving it well and playing well, I do need to try to make some birdies, and that’s exactly what we did today.”
It wasn’t easy for everyone. Phil Mickelson, who saw a chance to win his first U.S. Open disappear on the 72nd hole in 2006, started with back-to-back birdies but then hit it all over the lot for a 79. Tiger Woods, seeking his 16th career major, was at even-par after sinking a 40-foot birdie putt at the 16th but finished bogey-double bogey for a 73.
Thomas, 27, who was named the PGA of America’s 2019-20 player of the year after a season that had him win three times on the PGA Tour, handled Winged Foot’s narrow fairways pretty well, hitting 9 of 14 along with 14 greens in regulation. He needed just 28 putts and was 3-for-4 in sand saves.
He carded six birdies against a single bogey, and his 4-foot birdie putt at the 507-yard par-4 17th hole enabled him to finish the day on top.
“It was a really, really solid round of golf,” Thomas said. “It’s one of the best rounds I’ve played in a while tee to green. There are a couple of things here and there that definitely could have been better, but I made sure all my misses were in the right spot, and that’s what you have to do in a U.S. Open.”
Reed used a 9-iron for his hole-in-one, which one-hopped into the hole. He managed to rank among the leaders even though he hit just five fairways.
“Of course I was excited about it,” he said of the ace, “but really I knew from that point that, hey, you need to settle down, get ready for the next hole. Around here at Winged Foot, every golf shot you have to pay full attention to because you hit one poor golf shot, [and] a lot of things can happen out here.”