Rory McIlroy Takes a Share of the U.S. Open Early Lead As Pinehurst No. 2 Shines

Two shared the lead at 5 under and 15 players broke par, but nobody is expecting Pinehurst No. 2 to play easier as the week goes on.
Rory McIlroy shot 5 under late Thursday to match Patrick Cantlay's morning 65.
Rory McIlroy shot 5 under late Thursday to match Patrick Cantlay's morning 65. / John David Mercer-USA TODAY Sports

PINEHURST, N.C. — The golf course delivered, as advertised. Pinehurst No. 2 rarely disappoints, and Thursday saw the usual bevy of bemusement as the U.S. Open got underway.

The storied course in the North Carolina sandhills wasn’t the only star, however. Patrick Cantlay went out early on the first day of the U.S. Open and set the pace with a 65, and late in the day Rory McIlroy’s birdie putt on the 18th green snuck over the edge to tie him for the lead .

Both players got to the top of the leaderboard in wildly different ways, but the score counts just the same.

“I think we got lucky,” McIlroy said of the conditions. “There was a lot of humidity early in the day, and then there was quite a lot of cloud cover the whole way through the day so it kept the golf course from getting too fiery.

“Selfishly for me, getting back out there (Friday) in the morning, it's going to be nice. Hopefully the clouds clear away and it's a nice clear day for the guys in the afternoon. But it definitely wasn't quite as fiery as I expected it to be this afternoon, which has yielded some decent scores.”

But will they last?

Pinehurst is hosting its fourth U.S. Open, and in the previous three, a total of four players have broken par over 72 holes. There are 15 players under par so far, a number that is all but certain to diminish.

Among those not under par? Scottie Scheffler and Xander Schauffele, the last two major championship winners.

Scheffler shot 71, shooting over par in consecutive rounds for the first time since the 2023 British Open. Schauffele scrambled his way to even-par 70.

Sweden’s Ludvig Aberg, who finished second to Scheffler at the Masters but is still playing in just his third major championship, shot 66 to trail the leaders by a stroke. France’s Matthieu Pavon parlayed two eagles into a 67, a score later tied by Bryson DeChambeau—who finished second to Schauffele last month at the PGA Championship.

Tony Finau, Tyrrell Hatton and Akshay Bhatia shot 68. Sergio Garcia, playing in his 25th consecutive U.S. Open after making it into the field as an alternate via final qualifying, had a single birdie and 17 pars and was among several players at 69.

Contrast that with Cantlay, who is ranked ninth in the world, hit just 10 greens in regulation, and grabbed the early lead.

“I got the ball up and down on 7, made a bunch of putts inside 8 feet,” Cantlay said. “I think around this golf course, you're going to leave yourself putts inside 8 feet, that 4- to 8-foot range. It's important that you hole out. I did that well today.”

It’s probably the key to the U.S. Open. Players are going to miss greens, and giving yourself makeable putts is imperative. The inverted shape of the greens that tends to make them difficult to hold while tricky to putt will cause fits.

“This golf course is all about the greens,” said Tiger Woods, who shot 74 in his first U.S. Open since 2020. “The complexes are just so difficult and so severe that ... it's hard to get the ball close. In most golf courses you play, you hit shots into where it's feeding off of slopes into flags, whereas collecting. Here everything is repelling. It's just hard to get the ball on top of the shelves.

“You know if you miss it short side, it's an auto bogey or higher. Being aggressive to a conservative line is I think how you need to play this particular golf course.”

For the second year in a row, McIlroy opened the U.S. Open with a 65, eventually finishing second to Wyndham Clark at Los Angeles Country Club. This is also the fourth time he has opened a major championship with a bogey-free round, the other three leading to victories at the 2011 U.S. Open, the 2012 PGA and the 2014 British Open.

It has been a decade since McIlroy won the last of his four majors at the PGA Championship and 13 years since his lone U.S. Open title.

A good bit has changed since then, including McIlroy’s attitude toward playing in the championship.

“I really don't think I embraced U.S. Open setups probably 10 years into my U.S. Open career,” McIlroy said. “Played my first one in '09, and I think I really changed my mindset around them in 2019, that one in Pebble (Beach), and then since then I've also started to enjoy this style of golf a lot more.

“It's a lot different than the golf that we play week in, week out. I really appreciate that, and I've started to appreciate golf course architecture more and more as the years have went on, and I've started to read more about it and understand why golf course architects do certain things and design courses the way that they do.

“Just becoming more of a student of the game again, and I think because of that I've started to embrace golf courses like this and setups like this.”

After winning the U.S. Open in 2011, McIlroy, 35, posted just a single top-10 in the tournament through 2018 and missed three consecutive cuts. Since then, he’s gone T9, T8, T7, T5 and second.

And early-morning tee time Friday should be an advantage for McIlroy, who should also probably be well-adjusted to the idea that not everything is going to continue to go his way. The golf course might not yield as much, the scores might regress.

“With the weather cooperating, it being warm, I imagine they can get the golf course as difficult as they want,” Cantlay said. “With the Bermuda greens and no rain in the forecast, I expect the golf course to play very difficult in the next few days.”


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Bob Harig

BOB HARIG

Bob Harig is a senior writer covering golf for Sports Illustrated. He has more than 25 years experience on the beat, including 15 at ESPN. Harig is a regular guest on Sirius XM PGA Tour Radio and has written two books, "DRIVE: The Lasting Legacy of Tiger Woods" and "Tiger and Phil: Golf's Most Fascinating Rivalry." He graduated from Indiana University where he earned an Evans Scholarship, named in honor of the great amateur golfer Charles (Chick) Evans Jr. Harig, a former president of the Golf Writers Association of America, lives in Clearwater, Fla.