BETHESDA, Md. – The first round of the AT&T National at Congressional Country Club had a bit of a U.S. Open-type feel to it.
No, this wasn’t reminiscent of the 2011 U.S. Open where Rory McIlroy made Congressional his own major playground, shooting 16 under and winning by eight shots.
But with the 7,569-yard, par-71 layout playing even longer because of soft and humid conditions, along with some thick rough, Thursday’s opening round might as well been the opening round of this year’s third major championship.
OK, so the AT&T isn’t a major. There were 27 players under par on Thursday, not the single-digit numbers we saw a couple weeks ago at Merion.
But aside from leader Roberto Castro, who shot 5-under 66, and a trio of players – Billy Horschel, Bud Cauley and Graham DeLaet – at 3 under, no one managed to shoot more than a couple shots under par. Six holes played under par, too, including two par-5s. That’s hardly what we’re used to seeing on the PGA Tour.
“I’m a little surprised by the scoring, but also I know how difficult the golf course was,” Jim Furyk said. “I think the scoring we saw at the U.S. Open here was very atypical of this golf course.”
After surrendering several U.S. Open scoring records in 2011, it looks as if Congressional is getting a little payback this time around.
Here are 5 Things you need to know from Thursday at the AT&T National:
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1. CASTRO STARTS STRONG, AGAIN: The last time Roberto Castro held the first-round lead of a PGA Tour event was at the Players Championship in May.
Castro shot 9-under 63 that day at TPC Sawgrass, only to follow that with a second-round 78, to essentially, end his hopes of winning.
Fast forward to Thursday, where Castro carded a 5-under 66 to take a two-shot lead on the field.
“They were totally different rounds,” Castro said. “The one at Sawgrass, I hit it to 3 feet eight or nine times. And the one today was more of a normal round where I made some putts.”
Of Castro’s six birdies, one was a chip-in from 15 feet at the par-3 seventh hole and the other five came from 14 feet or longer. He had three straight birdies, at Nos. 5-7, and he’s first in strokes gained-putting (4.89) despite entering the week ranked No. 181 on Tour.
Also, the Players Stadium course played firm and fast while Congressional was soft, receptive, played longer and, of course, featured U.S. Open-like rough.
“The rough’s brutal,” Castro said. “Our group, we probably were 50 percent you’d get it up to the green and 50 percent pitching out.”
Castro had to lay up out of the rough a couple times, including at the par-4 eighth, where his drive went way right and hit a tree. He then had to pitch out near the ninth tee box before sticking his third to about 7 feet to set up a par save.
Castro also held a share of the first-round lead after a 63 at this year’s Humana Challenge. He went on to finish T-37. Despite a couple good starts, Castro still doesn’t have a top-10 this season on Tour.
But Castro said he took a lot from that T-19 finish at the Players.
“If I play a good round and I play well, I can play as good as anybody,” Castro said.
Despite missing the cut last week at the Travelers, Castro has made three of four cuts since the Players, and has two top-20s, as well.
Now he just needs to follow Thursday’s good round with a similar performance.
“Last week, after having a few good weeks, I took the foot off the accelerator and just kind of went through the motions,” Castro said. “So my goal today was to be aggressive, and try to do that again.”
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2. MAJOR CONFIDENCE BOOST: Billy Horschel has always felt like the tougher the golf course was, the better he played.
That could help explain how Horschel finished T-4 at the U.S. Open at Merion two weeks ago. And it could also provide support to his opening-round 3-under 68 Thursday at Congressional, a course with not only U.S. Open history but also U.S. Open-like conditions.
“It’s not easy,” said Horschel, who made three birdies in his first four holes before grabbing the morning lead at 3 under. “It’s like another U.S. Open. Off the fairways, the rough is thick. It’s tough to hit the ball on the green.”
Horschel hit just 5-of-14 fairways in his opening-round, but only needed 27 putts to complete his round. He made a 51-footer for birdie at the par-3 10th to jumpstart his day.
“I think that’s the longest putt I made this year,” said Horschel, who ranks No. 17 on Tour in strokes gained-putting this season. “It was up the hill a little bit. The good thing was that once I got over the hill, it sort of ran away toward the hole . . . just let it feed in there. Looked good. Obviously, it went in.”
Horschel has seven top-10s on Tour this season, including a victory at the Zurich Classic of New Orleans. Six of those top-10s have come in Horschel’s last eight events.
He took a week off last week to rest following a successful week at Merion.
“The first two days I’m home, I don’t do anything,” Horschel said. “I sleep a lot. I catch up in my shows. . . . I don’t have that adrenaline rush going on. I’m relaxed, and I’m just tired.”
While Horschel has certainly regained that high energy back this week, he hasn’t had to do much searching for his confidence.
“My first major as a pro, I finished fourth with a really good field and had a chance to win going into the weekend,” Horschel said. “You can only build confidence from that.”
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3. DAY’S HAND HURTING: It was a bit surprising when Jason Day showed up at Congressional Thursday with his right wrist wrapped in tape.
Blame it on the Merion rough, he says, which strained his right hand.
“That rough was brutal,” Day said. “There’s a little bit of pain in my hand.”
Day did manage to shoot 1-under 70, though, and had plenty of opportunities to test that hand out of Congressional’s thick rough. He hit eight of his 14 fairways, but of the six he missed, he was able to birdie one of those holes and par three more.
It’s safe to say the hand isn’t a problem. Day, who was runner-up at Merion and who finished second at the 2011 U.S. Open at Congressional, is playing well yet again.
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4. FLUFF KNOWS HIS STUFF: It’s not the biggest of advantages, but having some local knowledge on the bag doesn’t hurt, either.
Mike “Fluff” Cowan, caddie for Jim Furyk since 1999, has been a member at Congressional since 2000. He lives in Bethesda with his wife Jennifer and frequently plays the course.
“He’s been a pretty big asset on the greens, and there’s a couple of putts out here where he’ll say, ‘Hey, I know it looks like it’s going to go left, but it doesn’t go as much as we think, and he’d probably be right,” said Furyk, who posted an opening-round 2-under 69. He made three birdies and just one bogey, too.
The only thing Fluff’s familiarity hasn’t helped Furyk with at Congressional are his lines off the tee.
“He plays from a different set of tee boxes and doesn’t see some of the tee boxes we’re playing from,” Furyk said.
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5. SHORT SHOTS: What rough? Bud Cauley hit just four fairways Thursday, yet he finished with a 3-under 68. . . . After finishing third at last week’s Travelers Championship, Graham DeLaet shot 3-under 68 Thursday at Congressional. . . . Former University of Virginia standout Ben Kohles fired a 2-under 69 in his first competitive round at Congressional. “Not too far away from Charlottesville (Va.),” Kohles said. “It’s good to be back in this area.” . . . Nick Watney, who shot 1-under 70 on Thursday, entered this week having played his previous six PGA Tour rounds in 28 over. He’s missed three straight cuts, too. . . . Davis Love III withdrew following an opening-round 83. Love, who had neck surgery earlier this season, cited a hip injury. Rory Sabbatini (back) withdrew after 12 holes.