Johnson, Stenson Share First-Round Lead

Henrik Stenson, in search of his first major title, finished with a flurry of four birdies over his last five holes to propel him to a 5-under 65 on Thursday. (USGA/Fred Vuich)
Henrik Stenson, in search of his first major title, finished with a flurry of four birdies over his last five holes to propel him to a 5-under 65 on Thursday. (USGA/Fred Vuich)


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UNIVERSITY PLACE, Wash. – So much pre-championship dialogue about Chambers Bay centered on what kind of golfer the new and mostly untested course would favor in the 115th U.S. Open.

Many guesses were ventured, but agreement was in short supply.

Would it be a bomber’s paradise? What about a precision shot-maker, or a deft player with an imaginative short-game?

Judging from Thursday’s first-round leader board, the 8-year-old layout alongside Puget Sound didn’t favor any particular style. Chambers Bay was an equal-opportunity course, thanks to an overcast, relatively windless day that presented good scoring opportunities.

Dustin Johnson, No. 1 in driving distance on the PGA Tour, and Henrik Stenson, who ranks second in greens in regulation, each carded 5-under 65s on the 7,497-yard course to share a one-shot lead over four-time PGA Tour winner Patrick Reed. Matt Kuchar, Ben Martin and amateur Brian Campbell sit two strokes back, while seven players, including reigning Masters champion Jordan Spieth and two-time U.S. Open runner-up Jason Day, posted 2-under 68s.

Phil Mickelson, seeking the Open title to complete the career Grand Slam, carded a 69.

Defending champion Martin Kaymer shot a 72 and three-time champion Tiger Woods struggled to a 10-over 80, his highest round by three shots in 68 U.S. Open rounds.

Twenty-five players posted under-par rounds, the third-most for an opening round in the championship’s history and the most for a par-70 course.

“Today was quite playable,” said Kuchar. “Long irons were tough to hold on greens, mid-irons you could hold. It was a really, really good setup.”

That was the vital question for this first-time U.S. Open venue. How would the USGA set up the course? Would No. 1 be a par 4 or par 5? How firm would the greens be?

Those questions were answered before Seattle-area natives Michael Putnam and Troy Kelly struck the championship’s first shots. No. 1 played as a par 4 and 18 was a par 5. USGA officials chose the lower teeing ground for the par-3 ninth hole over the 100-foot elevated teeing ground.

But no matter where the holes were cut and tee markers placed, players maintained that quality shots were rewarded.

“I talked to some of the guys this morning that played and they said it was pretty gettable out there,” said Day. “I just tried to give myself opportunities, just tried to hit as many greens as I possibly could. And I felt like I did that today.”

Added Spieth: “All in all, you have a group of holes where you just have to play to try and two-putt from 40 feet. And you get a group of holes where you can maybe try and attack it if you hit the right tee shot.”

He won’t get any disagreement from Johnson, who got an unexpected head start to his U.S. Open week after withdrawing from the FedEx St. Jude Classic in Memphis, Tenn., because he didn’t feel well. He said the heat contributed to that decision. It might have been a blessing in disguise. Johnson flew to Las Vegas to meet with his instructor, Butch Harmon, then arrived at Chambers Bay on Saturday feeling ready to challenge for his first major title.

Upon first sight, the nine-time PGA Tour winner liked the course, with its wide fairways and links-style feel.

Through 16 holes, Johnson flirted with the major-championship single-round record of 63. A poor pitch at the par-5 eighth, which led to a scrambling par, and an errant tee shot at No. 9 cost Johnson a chance for a record-tying performance.

“My speed was pretty good all day,” said Johnson of his putting. “All of them looked like they had a chance to go in, and when I missed I had a tap-in.”

Johnson has come close to winning a major in the past. He held the 54-hole lead in the 2010 U.S. Open, only to shoot a final-round 82 and share eighth place. Later that year, he was in position to win the PGA Championship at Whistling Straits before suffering a two-stroke penalty for grounding his club in a bunker on the 72nd hole, costing him a spot in the playoff that was won by Kaymer.

 “Whistling Straits was a long time ago,” said Johnson, who claimed the WGC-Cadillac Championship earlier this year at Doral. “I think I’m a better player, obviously a lot more mature. My game is definitely in better shape than it was then.”

Like Johnson, Stenson, 39, of Sweden, is seeking his first major title. His 65 was his lowest in 36 career major starts. The No. 6 player in the Official World Golf Ranking™ was dialed in with his ball-striking from the outset, narrowly missing a birdie on the par-4 first, then converting from 6 feet and 3 feet on the next two holes. He closed his round with four birdies over his final five holes, including a 27-footer at the par-5 18th.

“It was a good day,” said Stenson, who claimed the 2009 Players Championship, one of his 16 worldwide victories. “I was striking it nicely, which led to a lot of birdie opportunities for me. I felt like I was really keeping my patience and a level head out there and very focused on the things that I wanted to be focused on. … I hit some beautiful putts and managed to slip a few in there.”

All this occurred after his regular caddie, Gareth Lord, severely injured his wrist walking off the 16th tee in Wednesday’s final practice round. Stenson was unsure if Lord would be available, but after getting a cast placed on the wrist, Lord declared himself fit to go.

“He's not in a good place with the hand, but he managed to caddie and did a good job for me anyway,” said Stenson. “I had to caddie for him a little bit, as well.”

Reed, who tied for 35th in his first U.S. Open last year, had a 4-under 31 on the inward nine. He birdied 10, 13, 16 and 17 after an opening nine that included two birdies and two bogeys.

“I feel like I'm making some quality golf shots and swings,” said Reed, winner of this year’s Hyundai Tournament of Champions. “I feel like during the practice rounds, we did our homework, we figured out the golf course pretty well. The biggest unknowns, and they are still unknowns for all of us, is where they are going to put the flags and where are they going to put the tees.”

Those findings will help to answer several other questions over the next three days.

David Shefter is a senior staff writer for the USGA. Email him at dshefter@usga.org.