BETHESDA, Md. – The U.S. Open for more than a century has had a way of turning the world’s best players into chops, you know, bogey makers who can’t wait to get to the 19th hole or call their guru for an emergency session.
Thursday was no exception. Struggling and underachieving came as easy as 1-2-3.
Paired in the same threesome in the morning, world No. 1 Luke Donald made five bogeys and a double bogey and shot 3-over-par 74; No. 2 Lee Westwood hit only seven greens in regulation and made six bogeys in shooting 75; and No. 3 Martin Kaymer made six bogeys even though he hit 13 greens in regulation.
It was ugly. It was surprising. It was U.S. Open-like. It was, for them, frustrating.
Often players draft off of each other. You see it all the time in golf. One player starts going low and others in his group follow suit. This was a draft in reverse.
“We needed one or two of us to get on a run, but it didn’t happen,” Donald said. “All three of us struggled a bit. There were no fireworks.”
No there weren’t. But there was plenty of sloppiness.
Combined they hit but 22 of 42 fairways – fairways that are wider than the Open norm. They combined for 17 bogeys and a double against nine birdies. They shot 10 over total. Donald and Kaymer each three-putted twice. Westwood hit into six bunkers.
All three were out of kilter. Their performances and their rankings didn’t seem to jibe.
Donald started the day with birdies at Nos. 10 and 11, the first from 5 feet on the difficult 203-yard 10th. He looked like a world No. 1 intending to show the world he’s worthy of the lofty perch.
“I thought I was off and running,” Donald said.
He wasn’t. He played the final six holes of that nine, the back, in six over par. That bad run included a double bogey at 18 without his ball finding water.
Like Westwood, Donald hit only seven of 14 fairways, one fewer than Kaymer. On his second nine, Donald routinely found the left rough off the tee.
“It was untidy,” Donald said. “I didn’t hit enough fairways, but it wasn’t just driving. When I did hit the fairway, I’d short-side myself (on approaches, missing on the side of the pin). It hit a lot of loose irons. It was a struggle. Hopefully I can find better ball control.”
So Donald headed to “try to find something on the range,” in search of a quick fix. That’s something he hasn’t had to worry about while piling up 15 top-10 finishes in his last 16 starts worldwide.
“It’s a little disappointing I didn’t play the way I felt I can play,” Donald said. “But I’ve played in enough majors and U.S. Opens that if you shoot something in red numbers you can put yourself back in position.”
While Donald struggled on the more difficult back nine, Westwood limped home on the vulnerable front. Westwood was in good shape, even par through 11 holes, but then he bogeyed four of his final seven holes.
It wasn’t pretty. He missed a 5-foot par putt after a terrific long bunker blast at the third. He came up short with a wedge and then chunked a chip in bogeying the fourth. He blocked his second shot into water in bogeying the par-5 sixth. Then he found his sixth bunker and bogeyed the par-5 ninth.
“I just hit too many bad shots, made too many mistakes,” Westwood said. “What can you do? I didn’t try to go out and play poorly. But I played poorly.”
Westwood accurately called Congressional “very receptive” to low scores. Birdies were out there to be had. When he finished the morning wave, he was surprised no one had shot 66. So you can imagine how he felt about his 75.
Friday is another day, another feel. It also brings more urgency for the top three players in the world ranking. They’re not out of it yet. But at the moment, with Rory McIlroy speeding away at the top, they’re not exactly in it, either.