BETHESDA, Md. — Bo Van Pelt kept bogeys off his card and picked up an extra shot when his wedge spun back into the hole for an eagle. It’s a formula that would work well at a U.S. Open, which is what Congressional felt like Thursday in the AT&T National.
On a day when the temperature was in the 90s and only seven players managed a score in the 60s, Van Pelt opened with a 4-under 67 to grab a one-shot lead over Vijay Singh, Brendon De Jonge and Jimmy Walker, who bogeyed his final hole.
Tiger Woods was never under par in the afternoon and opened with a 1-over 72.
So this is what the U.S. Open was supposed to look like.
The venerable Blue Course took a beating last year in the so-called toughest test in golf when unfavorable weather conditions in the weeks leading up to the U.S. Open and overnight rain during the championship made Congressional a pushover. Rory McIlroy had a record score of 16-under 268 for an eight-shot victory.
The AT&T National was more of a grind.
“It’s certainly, I think, a little retribution for what happened last year,” Woods said. “Don’t be mad at me. I didn’t play.”
Woods missed the U.S. Open last year while recovering from injuries to his left leg. He won at Congressional in 2009 the last time the AT&T National was played here, and he won at 13-under 267. That was nothing like the course he faced Thursday.
Billy Hurley III, who went to the Naval Academy and spent five years in the service, joined Pat Perez and Jason Day at 2-under 69.
The seven players in the 60s were two less than the opening round at the U.S. Open last year. Four players failed to break 80, just like a year ago, only the 120-man field at the AT&T National is filled with PGA Tour players. For the U.S. Open, two of those rounds in the 80s were by amateurs, a third by Ty Tryon.
“I think everybody knows the golf course last year just wasn’t quite ready to be set up the way they wanted it to be set up, and it’s unfortunate,” Van Pelt said. “I know they spent a lot of time and money to get it ready, and some things are out of your control. I said it last year — they needed one more year, and basically you could have a U.S. Open here this week if you wanted it.
“That’s the way it’s set up.”
The sunshine and heat figure to make it tougher over the next few days, especially on the weekend.
Nick Watney, the defending champion (at Aronimink) who was in the large group at 70, said the more fair comparison was with the U.S. Open held two weeks ago at The Olympic Club. Michael Thompson led after the opening day at 4-under 66, and Webb Simpson won at 1-over 281.
Van Pelt only twice struggled to make par, making a 30-foot putt on the 15th and a 20-footer on the par-5 sixth hole. Equally impressive was his bunker shot on the 18th to tap-in range, and he took those vibes to the first hole. After an aggressive drive, he had 93 yards to the hole and figured it was a good time to put to test all the work he has done on his wedge play. It worked out better than he imagined, holing it for an eagle.
“I actually thought it had kind of spun back in front of the hole, and all of a sudden this guy behind the green started going nuts,” Van Pelt said. “You never know when those are going to happen, so it’s nice to get a deuce.”
Even better was not making a bogey and giving himself a good start going into his Friday morning start of the second round.
Woods never got it going, and he made two blunders late in the round with his bunker play, which also was suspect in the U.S. Open two weeks ago. After making a 15-foot birdie putt on the 14th, he put his approach into the bunker right of the green on the 15th. His shot barely got out of the sand, and he stubbed a chip, leaving him a 7-footer that he had to make for bogey.
On the next hole, he was 244 yards from the hole when he pulled a 4-iron to the bunker short of the green on the par-5 16th. The gallery groaned when the ball emerged from the bunker and barely got onto the green, costing him a reasonable birdie chance. He two-putted from 30 feet for par.
Woods attributed it to the amount of sand in the bunkers and that his 60-degree wedge “is not built for this much sand.”
“So I have to make an adjustment and hit the ball a little bit closer, make sure I hit a little closer to the golf ball,” he said. “And I just didn’t do it.”