Justin Rose kept his hopes of becoming the first man for 25 years to win back-to-back US Open titles alive with a battling first round at Pinehurst.
Despite having the best of the conditions, Rose was four over par after nine holes but birdied three of the next five before a duffed chip on the eighth cost him a fifth bogey of the day.
“I’ve got to play some great golf the rest of the week,” Rose said after finishing on two-over-par 72. “If I shot 66 I wouldn’t be here thinking, well, that’s won me the tournament. A 72 certainly hasn’t lost me the tournament. I was telling myself: ‘If I get it back to two over and then shoot one under each for the next two days. . .’
“That’s the way I try to break it down. If I play well I feel I can get it under par.”
The 33-year-old, looking to become the first player since Curtis Strange in 1989 to make a successful title defence, added: “Being a different golf course I never really treated it as being defending champion. It was always going to be a new test so I just try to focus on the golf course. I feel like I’m playing the golf course more aggressively each day.”
Graeme McDowell celebrated confirmation of the Open Championship’s return to his home course of Portrush by claiming a share of the clubhouse lead. The Ulsterman fired an eagle, one birdie and one bogey in an opening 68, joining American Kevin Na at the top of the leaderboard on two under.
Sweden’s Henrik Stenson, who can overtake Adam Scott as world No 1 by claiming his first major title on Sunday, was among a six-strong group in the clubhouse on one under as the early starters made the most of more receptive greens than had been expected. Six-times runner-up Phil Mickelson, looking to become only the sixth player to win all four major titles, was another shot back on level par alongside England’s Ian Poulter and Dutchman Joost Luiten.
Sheffield amateur Matt Fitzpatrick briefly held a share of the lead after starting with two birdies in his first three holes, the 19-year-old eventually signing for a 71, one better than playing partner Rose. Former champion Rory McIlroy was alongside Fitzpatrick on one over.
McDowell admitted the early starters had enjoyed the luck of the draw, and the decision of tournament officials to water the course after the expected rain failed to materialise.
“I spent the last few days just preparing myself mentally for the challenge, knowing that this golf course wasn’t going to give much and it was only going to take,” said 2010 champion McDowell. “I really felt like I got my head in the right place the last few days. It wasn’t my best ball-striking display this morning, but you don’t have to strike it amazing around here, you just have to position the ball correctly at all times, and with a tiny bit more moisture this morning we got lucky.
“In practice yesterday the golf course seemed to be very firm, kind of a weekend set up. I guess the USGA were really relying on some rain last night, which didn’t come.”
Speaking about the Open Championship returning to Portrush in 2019 – it was last staged there in 1951 – McDowell added: “That’s extremely exciting.
“I’ve been kind of hesitant to comment because I really didn’t want to take anything away from the official announcement [the R&A are holding a press conference in Portrush on Monday]. I’m very proud of where I grew up. I’m very proud of the tradition and history there and to bring an Open Championship back to Northern Ireland is very special. It speaks volumes about how far the country has come.
“It’s going to be a very special thing for Northern Ireland and Ireland in general. I just hope I’m exempt and playing well.
“It’s been a dream of mine as a kid. I’ve spent many an hour out there as a kid and dreaming of playing major championships.
“To have a major championship come to Portrush, [especially] the Open Championship is special stuff.
“It’s the result of a lot of gentle ribbing in the direction of Mr Dawson (R&A chief executive Peter Dawson) the last four or five years from myself and [Rory] McIlroy and [Darren] Clarke. Nice to see the fruits of our labour, I suppose.”
McDowell’s total looked like being a popular number, with England’s Paul Casey joining an eight-strong group on two under par with a lengthy birdie putt across the 18th green, his ninth hole of the day.
Playing partner Luke Donald was not faring so well however, the former world number one stumbling to the turn in 40, five over par.
Scott was one over par after bogeys at the seventh and ninth.
Rickie Fowler paid tribute to the late Payne Stewart, wearing his idol’s trademark plus fours for the opening round.
Stewart won his third major title in the 1999 US Open at Pinehurst, but died just a few months later at the age of 42 when the private plane in which he was travelling depressurised and eventually crashed in a field in South Dakota.
“Payne was one of my all-time favourite players,” Fowler said after an opening round of 70.
“I never had a chance of meeting him, but obviously loved watching him play and loved how he handled himself on and off the golf course.
“It’s cool to be in the position I’m in to wear some attire like he used to wear, to give tribute to him.”
Fowler was just 10 years old when Stewart died, but remembers the par putt he holed on the 72nd hole to beat Phil Mickelson by a shot, the first of Mickelson’s record six runners-up finishes.
“I think everyone remembers Payne’s putt on 18. That’s what you think about,” Fowler added.
“But there’s a few points that I can look back and remember exactly where I was and what I was doing and what was going on, and one of those is when the plane crash happened.
“I was just getting off school. I was on College Road sitting in the back seat with my mom and sister in the car. I started crying in the car.”