It came out Friday morning at debutant host Los Angeles Country Club in further clouds after the soothing clouds of Thursday, the first day in U.S. Open history in which not even one contestant treated the audience to the sight of an excellent player shooting 80 or above. At an event where Rickie Fowler followed his 62 of Thursday with a 68 to lead halfway through, some bemoaned all the red scores, such as Fowler’s 10 under par. “I think it should be around par,” two-time champion and reigning PGA Championship winner Koepka said Friday of the leading U.S. Open scores. “Yeah, I mean I don’t — I’m not a huge fan of this place.
“I just think that there’s a — I’m not a huge fan of blind tee shots, and then I think there’s just some spots that no matter what you hit, the ball just ends up in the same spot. I think it would be more fun to play on just like a regular round than it would be a U.S. Open. I mean, there’s what, two [8-under scores] yesterday? That doesn’t happen.”
In microcosm, Johnson’s trip through hole No. 2 might have provided some salve. It looked too graphic for normal U.S. Open bogeying, but an 8 on a par-4 hole certainly qualified as somber. The two-time major champion and 2016 U.S. Open champion had his tee shot bounce in front of a fairway bunker on the left, bounce right in, make itself at home and travel the soft sand to a place close to the lip.
His second shot careened 95 yards and dove down into the rough.
His third shot went 60 yards and visited one of the hallmarks of this North Course, a barranca, which is a narrow, winding river gorge better suited for hiking.
His fourth shot wasn’t a shot but a barranca penalty.
His fifth shot went just behind the green. His sixth shot emerged from there and rolled and rolled and rolled, curling around the pin without ever getting close enough to say hello before stopping at 27 feet beyond. His seventh shot got close. His eighth shot closed it.
He narrated later on: “Caught the corner of the [fairway] bunker and then chunked my bunker shot and then chunked the next one, skulled the next one. Everything that you could do wrong, I did wrong.”
That kind of thing can be destructive beyond the hole in question: “Sometimes it is,” Johnson said. But it didn’t fell this long-standing great talent: “Today it wasn’t, though.”
While it got everybody wondering whether anybody ever committed a quadruple bogey and wound up winning a major — not in the past 30 years, anyway, according to the Elias Sports Bureau — Johnson went on to the key to the round: the next shot. “Just think about hitting the fairway on No. 3,” he said.
He hit that fairway, at 296 yards down the right side, then he got it to 14 feet and curled one of the prettier right-breaking birdie putts you will see. By day’s end, his 4 under for the round after No. 2 had become one of the better level-par rounds you will see. “I’ve got a lot of confidence in the game and what I’m doing right now,” he said as he took a spot at 6 under, the score left over from his 64 of Thursday.
Oddly, the only person in those last 30 years to win a major after even a triple bogey would be the least likely of all to have done so: Tiger Woods at the 2000 U.S. Open at Pebble Beach, which he won by only 15 shots because of his triple on No. 3 on the blustery Saturday by the sea and the seals.
The unwelcome merriment here down south continued through the morning, and the sun came out for once, and Wyndham Clark, who won the tournament at Quail Hollow in Charlotte this year, got to 9 under after 36 holes. He led until Fowler caught him. He also led as McIlroy somehow turned up right behind him.
Here we go with another major and another contention for McIlroy and another turn of the topic gone ancient — his bid to end his major drought nobody foresaw when he won the 2014 PGA Championship at Valhalla in Louisville, 33 majors ago. Here he goes into the weekend with a 65-67 that has him at 8 under and with the audacity of hope.
“I’ve been trying, and I’ve come close over the past nine years or whatever it is, and I keep coming back,” he said. “I feel like I’ve showed a lot of resilience in my career, a lot of ups and downs, and I keep coming back. And whether that means that I get rewarded or I get punched in the gut or whatever it is, I’ll always keep coming back.”
If the round could not subsume him with displeasure, at least it could provide it in pockets. It did become a carnival round. He had four bogeys mixed in with his seven birdies, but he did close with a 30 on a front nine everybody finds more “scoreable,” and he did make his closing hole (No. 9) a gasp and a gas when he knocked it off the tee to a trickle right by the pin and a stop within 2 feet 11 inches.
Then a golf sage presented him with a statistic flying around, the one about him never winning a tournament when the winning score ended up in single digits, hinting he needs a chance at good offense to triumph. “So if I had shot single digits under at Congressional [at the 2011 U.S. Open he dominated] I would have won,” he said. “If I would have shot single digits under at Kiawah [at the 2012 PGA Championship he dominated], I would have won. So I think it’s a flawed statistic.”
He, like many others, did find surprise in another flawed statistic, the one about the scoring at a U.S. Open at a vaunted course here, a course Southern Californian Collin Morikawa called “a big-boy course.”
“I didn’t see the scores being as low as they are,” McIlroy said. “I think the overcast conditions yesterday combined with that little bit of rain in the morning, I think the course just never got firm at all.”
He spoke as many around him hoped for harsher days Saturday and Sunday and as Johnson outlined the ideal mentality for approaching the weekend, as well as for overcoming a quadruple bogey.
“How empty or full is your head when you’re playing?”
“I have no idea,” he said to laughter.
He added soon: “I guess there’s maybe a lot going on but not a lot at the same time. Does that make any sense?”