SOUTHAMPTON, N.Y. — They arrived Thursday morning with loaded résumés and bulging trophy cases, three golfers not simply ranked among the world’s best but greeted as among the most popular too, a first-day US Open grouping to delight fans packed along Shinnecock’s undulating hills, as well as those watching at home.
Phil Mickelson, approaching 48 and looking for glory in the twilight of his career; Rory McIlroy, 29 and cruising for additional hardware in the throes of his prime; and Jordan Spieth, at 24 enticing everyone with visions of a long, dominant future to follow his torrid start. Together on the first tee, a generational golfing supergroup ready to rock.
But they fought the course, and the course won.
On a day when crosswinds danced with golf balls in a wild, unpredictable tango, when well-struck drives flew sideways and softly tapped putts rolled backward, when dazzling blue skies were more threatening than any storm clouds could have been, there were precious few golfers to stay under par. Forget worrying about losing a ball in the towering fescue that had surrendered its way into a flattened blanket; this was a day golfers were lucky not to lose their minds.
Par would have been miraculous for the early trio so defeated and baffled by Mother Nature’s cruel gusts, a combined 25-over-par day for McIlroy, Spieth, and Mickelson setting an early tone of defeat.
Oh, there would be a tiny handful of (barely) red numbers on the leaderboard of golf’s second major of the year, a four-way 1-under tie shared by world No. 1 Dustin Johnson, Ian Poulter, Russell Henley, and Scott Piercy, and even a solid eight-hole run of 1-under golf from none other than old friend Tiger Woods, who played alongside Johnson. But make no mistake: This was classic US Open carnage, with Shinnecock Hills’s hills laughing all the way to the clubhouse at last year’s host Erin Hills’s hills, which proved no match for champion Brooks Koepka or the 30 fellow golfers under par when his record-tying 16-under win was complete.
Take Woods, the 14-time major champion on his comeback trail from painful injury and personal insult, who felt for sure he was ready to put the variously successful aspects of his game together for one great weekend, but who opened his day with a triple-bogey/bogey start. Sure, he would use that mid-round run to temporarily dig himself out of the 4-over hole, but it didn’t last, back-to-back double bogeys eventually pushing him down the well again, 8 over to finish the day.
That was barely better than his morning buddies, when only Spieth (8 over compared with Mickelson’s plus-7 and McIlroy’s disastrous plus-10) could find himself composed enough to speak to reporters afterward, perhaps because he would be hanging around to hit a few buckets of balls at the nearby driving range.
“More than anything else it was difficult to control the ball off the tee,” Spieth said.
It was indeed a bad tee shot that started his personal disaster on his second hole (Shinnecock’s 11th, as he opened on No. 10), a triple-bogey misadventure from which he never really recovered. A first shot into the sand, a second one so hot it flew over the green and left him a blind chip from 12 feet under the green, a third one that refused to hold on the dry, slick carpet and rolled back down the hill before his fast-moving legs could mark it, a fourth one that held on but barely, a fifth putt that ran right past the hole and finally, mercifully, a sixth 4-footer that was anything but a gimme.
“I played that a little aggressively,” Spieth conceded. “I went the aggressive route and you can’t really do that. All in all I ended up making a 6, and thought I just got to make it up somewhere else on the course.”
Never happened, not on a course that left players muttering under their own breath, that saw tailored golf shirts pulling away from the sculpted torsos beneath, billowing away as if ready to take flight, that left normally smiling faces contorted in frustration and regularly trusted clubs shoved back into their bags in defeat. It wasn’t quite the wreckage of the baked, thirsty greens of 2004, but it wasn’t far off either.
“Happy it’s over,” Justin Rose said after a 1-over triumph. “I’m very happy with that style, though, for sure. Woke up this morning very early, 4:30, got in the shower, got dressed, had a cup of tea. Good start to the day. Got in the car, didn’t pay much attention. Arrived here, I’m like, ‘Whoa, what’s going on?’ The wind, the flags were already, you know, fluttering dead straight. So I knew I was in for a tough day when I saw that, and then I heard it was going to pick up even more around 11. I’m not sure if it did or it didn’t. It was a tough day.
“I enjoy it. It’s a different type of enjoyment, right? I enjoy the battle. I enjoy the fight. I enjoy the grind, really. Yeah, I do. I do enjoy it, especially when you’re on the right side of the fight.
“When you get a bit cut up and bruised, it can change pretty quick.”
“Like a US Open should be,” Masters champion Patrick Reed said after his 3-over effort. “If you hit a great shot, you’re going to be rewarded. If you don’t, you’re going to struggle.”
It was McIlroy who was asked on Wednesday if his interpretation of a US Open challenge was as test or punishment. Which one should players endure?
“Tested,” McIlroy said, “but punished if you hit a bad shot.”
Not too many passing grades Thursday, but plenty of detention. For better or worse, the US Open is back, in all its gore and glory.Tara Sullivan is a Globe columnist. She can be reached at email@example.com. Follow her on Twitter @Globe_Tara.