PINEHURST, N.C. — That wasn’t so tough. With former U.S. Open champion Graeme McDowell leading the way, Pinehurst No. 2 gave up more birdies than expected in the early going Thursday.
Taking advantage of a thick cloud cover that greeted the morning starters, McDowell shot a 2-under 68 and was tied for the lead with Kevin Na.
Six other players, including 20-year-old Jordan Spieth, opened with 69s on the Donald Ross masterpiece that has undergone a drastic makeover to restore its rustic look, with patches of natural vegetation — better known as weeds — taking the place of thick, lush rough.
Phil Mickelson got off to a strong start as well in his bid for the career Grand Slam, attacking the course with deft iron shots on the way to shooting 70.
McDowell, who won the U.S. Open at Pebble Beach in 2010, was as steady as can be in the sand hills of North Carolina. The Northern Irishman bounced back from his only bogey at No. 4 with an eagle-3 at the par-five fifth hole. He added another birdie at the 14th and the rest of his card was filled in with pars, just the sort of solid, mistake-free golf that is required at a major championship won the last two years with above-par scores.
Na also made an eagle at No. 5 on the way to the best Open round of his career. He missed the cut in both 2010 and 2011, and finished 9 over at his last Open two years ago.
Spieth was in the thick of things again, making four birdies to put himself right back in contention at a major championship. He was tied for the lead heading to the final round of both the Masters and The Players Championship, but couldn’t close either of them out on Sunday. But it seems just a matter of time before the talented young Texan claims a career-defining triumph.
Maybe it will be at Pinehurst.
Matt Kuchar, who has never won a major title, shot 3-under 32 on the front side but a shaky finish knocked him out of the lead. He bogeyed the 16th and 17th holes before his par putt at the final hole tumbled into the cup on its last turn, bringing out a smile as he headed toward the clubhouse with a 69.
Also at 69 were Brandt Snedeker, Brendon Todd, Sweden’s Henrik Stenson and Japan’s Hideki Matsuyama.
Snedeker made Pinehurst look like the local muni on the front side, making the turn with a 31. The course bit back on the back side; Snedeker bogeyed the 10th, took a double-bogey at No. 11, and fell back to even par on the day with another bogey at the 12th. Snedeker pulled it together, sinking a couple birdies coming back to the clubhouse to put himself solidly in contention for his first major title.
Mickelson already has five major championships, but this is the one he wants more than any other. Lefty has been the runner-up a record six times in this event, denying him the only big title missing from his resume. He’s changed his grip to deal with a shaky putter, hoping that would bring his first victory since capturing the British Open last July.
Rory McIlroy, who won the 2011 U.S. Open in a rout at Congressional, opened with a 71. Defending champion Justin Rose, who held off Mickelson a year ago at Merion, shot 72.
The sun began to break through the clouds around lunchtime, with temperatures climbing to the upper 80s. That figured to firm up the greens and make things tougher for the afternoon players, including the world’s top-ranked golfer, Adam Scott, and Masters champion Bubba Watson.