18 June 2021: As first impressions go, the South Course at Torrey Pines Golf Course didn’t leave a positive one on Russell Henley. A first-round 79 in the 2014 Farmers Insurance Open – which also uses the North Course here – led to a missed cut and the Georgia native opting to omit the late-January event from his annual West Coast PGA Tour itinerary.
“I don’t remember [much] besides leaving the course feeling like I just got beat up,” said Henley, a three-time PGA Tour winner.
Sometimes time and a little confidence can heal old wounds.
On Thursday in the first round of the 121st U.S. Open Championship, Henley punched back. A 4-under-par 67 gave the 32-year-old the clubhouse lead, with Louis Oosthuizen, of South Africa, also at 4 under with two holes to play when Round 1 was suspended due to darkness. A 90-minute fog delay on Thursday morning led to the circumstance in which 36 players were unable to complete the round before dark.
Oosthuizen, playing in the afternoon wave, bogeyed the par-4 11th, his second of the day, before playing 5-under-par golf over the next 14 holes. Should Oosthuizen, the winner of the 2010 Open Championship at St. Andrews, maintain his position or pass Henley when Round 1 play resumes Friday at 6:50 a.m. PDT, it would be the first time he has owned the first-round lead in a major championship. He is facing a 30-footer for birdie on the par-3 eighth.
Two Europeans – 2018 Open Championship winner Francesco Molinari, of Italy, and Rafa Cabrera Bello, of Spain – shot 68s, while the group lurking two strokes back includes two-time U.S. Open champion Brooks Koepka, hometown favorite Xander Schauffele, reigning Masters champion Hideki Matsuyama and Jon Rahm, whose first PGA Tour win came at Torrey Pines in the 2017 Farmers Insurance Open.
Henley, who also shared the first-round lead in his last U.S. Open start in 2018 at Shinnecock Hills, didn’t allow the delay to the start of Round 1 affect his day, even though he hit a poor 9-iron approach to the 440-yard first hole for an opening bogey. Birdies on Nos. 5, 7 and 8 produced a front-nine 33, and his lone back-nine blemish on No. 12 was offset by three more birdies, including on the par-5 closing hole. He finished +3.97 in strokes-gained putting, a major improvement from his season average of +0.08.
“I feel like I’m a top-50 player in the world,” said Henley, who noted that some of the best performances of his career have come in the last year, despite not producing any wins. “I’ve had a ton of top 10s. I’ve been in contention. I’ve been really consistent.
“That doesn’t mean I’m going to do that the next three days, but I definitely felt comfortable out there. I don’t feel like it’s a huge surprise because I do feel like I’ve played some good golf in some bigger events in the last year. But in terms of putting four rounds together at a U.S. Open, I’ve struggled with that. I’m just going to keep trying.”
Oosthuizen is certainly no stranger to U.S. Open leader boards. In his last six starts, the 38-year-old owns a tie for second (2015), a solo third (2020) and a share of seventh (2019). His metronomic swing and even-keel demeanor are ideal traits to succeed in the game’s biggest events.
He just hasn’t managed to get a second title. Oosthuizen lost a three-hole aggregate playoff in 2015 at St. Andrews to Zach Johnson, a sudden-death playoff to Bubba Watson in the 2012 Masters and tied for second in the 2017 PGA Championship at Quail Hollow in Charlotte, N.C.
“I just enjoy playing really tough golf courses,” said Oosthuizen. “I think somehow I focus a little bit better when I play those courses, knowing that the margin for error is really small. Especially around this place, you’ve got to drive it well, you’ve got to start it in the fairway, and you’re going to have trouble if you’re missing fairways … and I’ve really been driving it good lately.”
Cabrera Bello had the lone bogey-free round on Thursday. A survivor of the June 7 Columbus, Ohio, final qualifier, the Spaniard registered just his second clean card in 101 major-championship rounds. Last September at Winged Foot, the 37-year-old with six professional victories – all in Europe – opened with a 68, only to falter on the weekend and finish in a tie for 23rd. Improving that result, Cabrera Bello said, comes down to better focus.
“The fact that your concentration needs to be at 100 percent if not more on every shot,” said Cabrera Bello. “I feel like many times I just make silly mistakes because I could potentially lose concentration a second, and here [in the U.S. Open] I’m like with this sixth sense on the game, and that helps me. The fact that it’s a major, it also motivates me.”
Hideki Matsuyama works way up the leaderboard
Two months after winning the Masters Tournament, Japanese star Hideki Matsuyama showed up on the leaderboard once again in another major championship on Thursday.
Matsuyama battled to a 2-under 69 in the first round of the U.S. Open at Torrey Pines to share fifth place with two-time champion Brooks Koepka, Jon Rahm and Xander Schauffele and lie two back of clubhouse leader Russell Henley. Louis Oosthuizen sits on 4-under with two holes remaining when darkness suspended play.
Korea’s Si Woo Kim returned an even par 71 which featured five birdies while Sungjae Im was 1-over through 16 holes. Sung Kang signed for a 75 while K.H. Lee shot a 76 to leave themselves with some work to do on Friday to make the halfway cut.
The 29-year-old Matsuyama pencilled down three birdies against a lone bogey to put himself in the chase for more major glory. In April, he became only the second male Asian golfer to win a major and the first male golfer from his nation to achieve the feat.
He drained a lengthy putt from about 50 feet on the par-3, 11th hole which was the highlight of his day after making a nine-footer on No. 3 and a 13-footer on 10.
“I played really good today and hopefully I can keep up the same momentum,” said Matsuyama, a winner of six PGA TOUR titles. “I love it here. I’m glad it’s a (U.S. Open) venue, but it’s sure was a lot tougher than when we play here at the Farmers (Insurance Open).”
Making his ninth start at the U.S. Open, Matsuyama’s best is a tied second in 2017 at Erin Hills and her is showing the kind of form that could see him challenging for more success this weekend. His breakthrough at Augusta National no doubt added to the frenzy for the game in Japan, which is the largest golf market after the U.S and he knows the weight of a golf-mad nation remains squarely on his shoulders.
“All I can do is my best. It’s good to be a major title winner, and hopefully that momentum will carry through this week. Around the greens is very difficult, especially compared to when we play earlier in the year. It is going to be a real difficult test, and there’s some places where you just can’t miss it around the greens.
“It is a special week. It’s not only a major, but it requires you to drive the ball in the fairway and hit greens. Fairway and greens are really important. Par is a good score at the U.S. Open. You just have to avoid the bogeys from time to time.”
Kim, a three-time TOUR winner, paid dearly for a double bogey on the 12th hole after finding trouble with the gnarly rough which punishes errant drives. However, the young Korean fought back with birdies on Hole Nos. 1, 2, 7, 16 and 18, against three other bogeys on his card.
While 36 players still have to finish their opening round, Round 2 of the championship will commence – fog permitting – at 6:45 a.m. PDT with the low 60 scorers and ties at the end of the round qualifying for the final 36 holes this weekend. Live coverage begins at 9:40 a.m. EDT on Peacock. Golf Channel picks up the action at 12:30 p.m., with NBC broadcasting 6 p.m. to 9 p.m. Peacock then picks up the telecast until play concludes.