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2021 U.S. Open: Henley Grabs Lead in Fog-Delayed First Day, but Big Names Are Lurking

Brooks Koepka plays his shot from the 14th fairway during the first round of the U.S. Open at Torrey Pines Golf Course. 

Brooks Koepka plays his shot from the 14th fairway during the first round of the U.S. Open at Torrey Pines Golf Course. 

To start, there was 90 minutes of “June Gloom,” a morning fog that put a national championship on hold. In the end, there were incomplete rounds and a leaderboard that did little to distinguish contenders from pretenders, And in between, there was postcard weather and a U.S Open round on Thursday that provided two-thirds of the country with prime-time viewing.

Older than baseball’s world series, golf’s U.S. Open has made its par-protecting bones on thin fairways, thick rough, glassy greens and mental anguish. The stage for this 21st playing, Torrey Pines, checks all the boxes.

Once the morning mist lifted, relatively docile conditions appeared to invite a 156-player field to have its way. But the 7,600-yard public course proved its mettle, notwithstanding.

Not to say there weren't flagsticks banged, birdie-putts rolled or great notions advanced. There were seven eagles at the par 5 18th, and 315 birdies on the course overall. But what the U.S. Open giveth, the U.S. Open can taketh away. And as the day grew longer, the breezes blew stronger, the surfaces baked harder and the scores drew down.

Historically, par is considered a viable score at a U.S. Open. Forty players finished at par of better on Thursday, 23 of them under. But only four went deeper than 2 under, and only one - Russell Henley - completed a round as low as 4 under. The average score was more than 2.7 strokes over par.

In short, there was plenty of solid golf, but not a lot qualified as spectacular.

Keep in mind, almost as traditional as the challenging texture of this championship is an eclectic early leaderboard. This edition is no different, with relatively obscure entries mixing with household names around the top. Nowhere is that more evident than the very top.

Louis Oosthuizen won the 2010 British Open and has finished second in major championships five times, including a tie for second at the PGA Championship in May. Yet, Oosthuizen has never had the lead or the co-lead after the first round of a major … and technically, he still doesn’t.

His 4-under pace in the afternoon forced only a figurative tie with the more anonymous Russell Henley. After bogeying his second hole, the par 3 No. 11, the 38-year old Oosthuizen played the next 14 in 5 under. But he had two holes remaining when play was called due to darkness.

“You can feel the firmness of the greens,” Oosthuizen said. “It's getting a little firmer. But yeah, I played nicely, putted nicely and hopefully just keep the momentum going.”

In all, 36 players had work to be done when the horn blew. The first round will resume at 6:50 a.m. (Pacific Time) on Friday. That said, Henley will sleep in. The 32-year old covered his two bogeys with six birdies and completed a 4-under 67 during the belated morning wave.

The Macon, Ga. native doesn’t have nearly the pedigree of Oosthuizen. A “low amateur” tie for 16th in 2010 represents his best U.S. Open. Henley has no top-10s in 26 major championship starts.

In fact, the last time Henley spoiled a walk at Torrey, he shot a 79 and missed the cut in the 2014 Farmer’s Insurance Open. He was a little better this time - an even dozen cousin.

“I feel like the last year I’ve been playing golf that I feel like I’m a top-50 player in the world,” said Henley, who is ranked No. 63 on the OWGR. “I’ve had a ton of top 10s. I’ve been in contention. I’ve been really consistent.”

Two other early birds, Francesco Molinari and Rafa Cabrera Bello are a stroke back with completed rounds of 3 under. The 38-year old Molinari won the 2018 British Open, but has done no better than T16 in the U.S. version. The 37-year old Cabrera Bello’s best in this gig was a T23 last September.

Six more are knotted at 2 under, including distinguished gentlemen like Brooks Koepka, Hideki Matsuyama, Xander Schauffele and the “Quarantine Kid,” Jon Rahm.

Koepka, who won back to back U.S. Opens in 2017-18, also reached the 4-under plateau during the morning. But bogeys at No. 3 and No. 7 coming in pulled him back. Masters champ Matsuyama birdied twice during his otherwise flawless second nine to sneak a 69 in just under the nightfall wire.

Starting on the back, Rahm - who had a huge lead at the Memorial when he tested positive for Covid-19 - had a tumultuous opening, bouncing three bogeys off four birdies. But the 26-year-old Spaniard, who tied for third in the 2019 U.S. Open, stabilized coming in, with eight pars and a birdie on the front.

Reigning champion Bryson DeChambeau bombed his way to victory at Winged Foot in last September’s pandemic-postponed championship. Since then, the 27-year old has become the poster boy for shock-and-awe golf. And in theory, DeChambeau’s game promised to be lethal this week on a 7,600-yard public course.

But on Thursday, DeChambeau got along with Torrey Pines about as well as he gets along with Koepka. He hit only 50 percent of the fairways, 56 percent of the greens, and needed a birdie at 18 to close with a 2-over 73.

The last time the USGA staged its flagship event here, an iconic name prevailed. Tiger Woods limped to a playoff victory over Rocco Mediate at Torrey Pines in 2008, capturing his 14th major in legendary fashion. Thirteen years later, Woods is limping even more pronouncedly - with the help of crutches - as he recovers from injuries suffered in a serious February car crash. He is not in the field this week.

But another legendary figure is: Phil Mickelson, the talk of the town coming into the event. Mickelson turned 51 on Wednesday and entered the championship with his astounding PGA Championship win still reverberating. But an opening-round 75 turned the volume down.

The bumpy trip included three bogeys and one birdie as Mickelson’s attempt to make more history stalled. The six-time major champion is chasing a historical hat trick. He would become the oldest player to win a U.S. Open, the first left-hander to win the championship and the first lefty to complete a career grand slam if he could win at Torrey.

But Mickelson, who opened the PGA with a 2-under 70 at Kiawah Island, will begin his second round in a distant tie for 96th. When his disappointing day was over, Mickelson complained of being distracted by cellphone cameras. But ultimately, he took ownership of a chaotic card that featured five bogeys and just one birdie.

“I was fighting hard throughout the round," Mickelson said. “I wasn't really getting anything going, and I fought really hard, and then to let two bogeys slide on 6 and 7 when I really shouldn't have, like they weren't that hard of pars -- you probably saw the disappointment there.

"Look, it's part of this tournament, and I was able to go without any doubles, I just didn't make enough birdies to offset it. Like I said, I'm hitting enough fairways to give myself chances, and I'm optimistic that I'll put together a good round tomorrow.”

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