When he last visited Torrey Pines Golf Club for the Farmers Insurance Open more than seven years ago, Russell Henley holed a full-swing flop shot on the 18th to finish with a 79 and miss the cut by six strokes. It’s no wonder he wasn’t exactly in a hurry to come back.
“I don’t really remember [it] besides just leaving the course feeling like I just got beat up,” Henley said. “I played it that one time and really struggled and it was like, well, I’ll just not play it from now on. Maybe that’s not the best reason.”
The Georgia native’s return to the city-owned oceanside track for Thursday’s first round of the US Open played out somewhat more favourably. After opening with a bogey, the 32-year-old Henley made the turn in two under and added three birdies on the back nine for a four-under-par 67 and a one-shot lead over Francesco Molinari and Rafa Cabrera Bello.
The early target nearly held through the afternoon wave until Louis Oosthuizen, the 2010 Open champion, joined him atop the leaderboard until his round was suspended for darkness with two holes to play.
Among the five players two shots off the joint leaders were two-time US Open champion Brooks Koepka, San Diego native and crowd favorite Xander Schauffele, reigning Masters champion Hideki Matsuyama and third-ranked Jon Rahm, who largely lived up to the oddsmakers’ billing as the pre-tournament favourite in his first round since he was forced to withdraw from last month’s Memorial due to a positive coronavirus test while leading by six strokes after 54 holes.
The first round will not be completed until Friday thanks to the thick blanket of fog that rolled in off the Pacific Ocean at dawn, delaying Thursday’s start by an hour and a half. The dense marine layer enveloped the course and rendered it unplayable, prompting one 15-minute delay after another as the roughly 150 spectators dotting the grandstand surrounding the first tee box shuffled in and out of the gallery.
The fog showed no sign of burning off nor moving out to sea for more than an hour amid 17C (63F) temperatures and 90% humidity until finally clearing enough for local player Sahith Theegala, grouped with Italy’s Edoardo Molinari and Greyson Sigg of the US, to finally smack a tee shot into the grey San Diego morning at 8.15am.
The first fog delay at a US Open since 2004 at Shinnecock Hills pushed the scheduled 2.42pm tee times to 4.12pm, leading to a halt in the action at around 8pm with 36 players left on the course. A marine layer also delayed play in 2000 at Pebble Beach, where Tiger Woods famously won by a record-setting 15 strokes over Ernie Els and Miguel Ángel Jiménez in the most dominant performance in major championship history.
The morning gloom quickly gave way to a sun-splashed afternoon on the par-71 South Course, which is playing host to America’s national championship for the first time since Woods’s famous triumph in 2008, with Bryson DeChambeau trying to defend his title and local hero Phil Mickelson attempting to become only the sixth player to complete the career grand slam at the major that’s caused him so much agony down the years.
Mickelson’s bid got off to a rocky start as the six-time US Open runner-up, who turned 51 on Wednesday and required a special exemption for entry prior to last month’s history-making win at the US PGA Championship, was repeatedly out of position off the tee and made three bogeys in his first six holes and two more late to finish with a four-over 75.
At one point Mickelson was forced to back off his second shot multiple times on the 613-yard 13th hole as a spectator’s phone repeatedly went off. He proceeded to send a shot into the bushes, before asking the fan: “I don’t understand why you just can’t turn that little button on the side into silent.”
“I was fighting hard throughout the round,” said Mickelson, who became the oldest ever player to win a major last month at Kiawah. “I wasn’t really getting anything going and I fought really hard, and then to let two bogeys slide on six and seven when I really shouldn’t have.”
DeChambeau, who captured his first major at last year’s US Open at Winged Foot, spent much of the opening day of his title defence in the dense, punishing rough, needing two birdies on the last five holes to escape with a two-over 73.
The USGA bills its showcase event as the toughest test in golf and the narrow fairways, dense rough and glassy greens that comprised the set-up on the 7,652-yard South Course – the eighth-longest track in major championship history – followed what has become a familiar recipe. Mickelson was hardly the only big name to buckle beneath its rigour on Thursday.
Former US Open champions Webb Simpson (79), Justin Rose (79), Martin Kaymer (77) and Jordan Spieth (77) were among the familiar names towards the bottom of the leaderboard, with last year’s PGA Championship winner Collin Morikawa (75) not faring much better. Max Homa, grouped with Mickelson and Schauffele in a threesome of southern California players that drew large crowds all morning, four-putted from 20 feet for triple bogey on the 12th and three-putted for double bogey on the 14th to finish with a five-over 76.
Instead the day belonged to Henley, who has won three tour events since turning pro a decade ago but has never finished in the top 10 in any of his 26 major tournament appearances.
“I feel like the last year I’ve been playing golf that I feel like I’m a top-50 player in the world. I’ve had a ton of top 10s. I’ve been in contention,” he said. “I feel like I’m just kind of still playing well. That doesn’t mean I’m going to definitely do that the next three days, but I definitely felt comfortable out there.”