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Can Cantlay capitalize? What does Tiger need to do? Looking ahead to Friday at the U.S. Open

By admin Jun15,2024

  • Mark Schlabach

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    Mark Schlabach

    ESPN Senior Writer

    • Senior college football writer
    • Author of seven books on college football
    • Graduate of the University of Georgia
  • Paolo Uggetti

Jun 13, 2024, 09:36 PM ET

PINEHURST, N.C. — Pinehurst No. 2’s lightning-fast greens, steep runoffs and tricky native areas showed their teeth in the first round of the 124th U.S. Open on Thursday.

So much so that world’s No. 1 golfer Scottie Scheffler finally looked human in posting a 1-over 71, while many of the world’s best players were left scratching their heads after posting even bigger numbers.

With temperatures expected to be even hotter Friday, conditions in the second round might be even more daunting as the greens and fairways firm up even more.

“Yeah, it’s really hard,” said England’s Tyrrell Hatton, who carded a 2-under 68. “Certainly, like where the pins are, you can hit a great shot. Keeping it on the green 20 feet away is a great shot, which is mad to say when you’re hitting, like, a wedge into the green type thing.

“It’s just trying to accept that pars are a good score. Even if you do manage to hit the green, like two-putts aren’t that very simple. Yeah, it’s just a really tough test.”

They’ll all be chasing Patrick Cantlay, who is looking for his first major championship victory, and Rory McIlroy, who is trying to win his first in nearly 10 years. They set the pace at 5-under 65.

Here’s what to look for in the second round of the U.S. Open:

Cantlay in a brand-new spot

For the first time in his career, Cantlay finds himself on top of a major championship leaderboard after the first round with a score of 5-under on the day. In fact, Cantlay has only been inside the top-10 after the first day of a major twice before: at the 2022 Masters and the 2019 PGA Championship. His best finish was at the latter, where he tied for third place.

Patrick Cantlay heads into the second round of the 124th U.S. Open tied with Rory McIlroy for No. 1 on the leaderboard. (Photo by Jared C. Tilton/Getty Images)

After his friend Xander Schauffele won this year’s PGA Championship, there’s now a case to be made that Cantlay is one of the best players in the world without a major victory.

Cantlay has eight PGA Tour wins in his career and is one of the most prolific players on tour. And yet his major record leaves plenty to be desired. This year, he finished tied for 22nd at the Masters and tied for 54th at the PGA Championship.

There’s a lot of golf left to play, but Cantlay has immediately put himself in prime position. Whether he can sustain it Friday, let alone through Sunday, is a different matter.

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On Thursday, Cantlay hit nine of 14 fairways and only 10 of 18 greens. It was his short game (3.8 strokes gained in that area) and his putting (only 23 total putts!) that fueled his round of 65, tied for the lowest ever at Pinehurst No. 2 in a major.

“I knew going off at 7:40 in the morning, it’s going to play maybe the easiest it will play all week,” Cantlay said. “With the lack of wind and probably the softest we will see it. I’m really happy with the round I played today.”

At first glance, Cantlay’s path to remaining atop the leaderboard doesn’t appear to be sustainable. Sure, you’re not going to hit too many greens in regulation at Pinehurst No. 2 anyway, but you’re also not going to only need 23 putts to get around the course either. If Cantlay’s putter can remain hot and his short game sharp, however, he won’t be going away any time soon.

Will Pinehurst No. 2 play even tougher the rest of the week?

Day 1 on Donald Ross’ playground for the best players in the world featured a little bit of everything. We saw players struggle to keep shots on the green, go from one bunker to the other, take out entire tufts of grass with their approach shots and fall victim to the course’s most diabolical contours and challenges.

We also saw 15 players shoot under par – a reminder that no matter how tough the setup may be, these guys are really good. That’s the same number that shot under par after the first round in the 2014 U.S. Open here.

Even after just one day, it’s evident that Pinehurst’s start packs a powerful punch. The four holes that played the toughest on the golf course Thursday are all in the course’s first eight holes. No two played tougher than the 528-yard par-4 fourth hole and the 228-yard par-3. Both played nearly half a shot over par.

Fourteen players shot under par during the first round of the 124th U.S. Open at Pinehurst No. 2. (Photo by Tracy Wilcox/PGA TOUR via Getty Images)

“There’s always going to be someone that has the kind of day that hits the ball great, everything goes his way, makes a couple of bombs, and you can shoot it,” Sergio Garcia, who finished at 1 under, said. “Are we going to see it consistently? If it doesn’t rain, I don’t think so. You might see someone, yeah, shooting another 66 or 65 or something like that, but at the end of the day, I think as the course gets even firmer, even faster, a tiny bit of breeze comes up here and there, it’s going to be difficult to shoot those kinds of scores.”

It will be fascinating to see how the USGA treats the rest of the golf course from here on out. The green speeds fluctuated between 13 and 14 on the Stimpmeter on Thursday and if the golf course gets more firm, those speeds may become far tougher to deal with as the week goes on.

What does Tiger need to do?

Woods posted a disappointing 4-over 74 in the first round of the U.S. Open. (Photo by Jared C. Tilton/Getty Images)

After posting a disappointing 4-over 74 in the first round, 15-time major champion Tiger Woods hoped to get to the putting green Thursday to try to clean things up. After making a 12-footer for birdie on No. 10, his first hole, and a pair of nice par saves on Nos. 12 and 13, Woods’ putter was too inconsistent on the lightning-fast greens at Pinehurst No. 2.

He made three-putt bogeys on Nos. 17 and 1. The three-time U.S. Open winner missed a 4½-footer for par on the par-4 fourth. To his credit, Woods did have par saves of 9 feet and 18 feet, respectively, on Nos. 6 and 7, or the round might have been worse.

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“I’d like to hit a few putts,” Woods said after his round. “My speed was not quite there. I think I three-putted, what, two or three times today? If I clean that up, if I get a couple iron shots not as loose as I did, I’m right there at even par.”

That continues to be the dilemma for Woods in major championships since he returned to competitive golf after suffering serious injuries to his right leg in a February 2021 car wreck. He’s hesitant to ramp things up too much before a major in fear he wouldn’t be able to recover in time from another injury.

But playing less golf has left him searching for answers about his putting because of his lack of reps.

“I’m physically getting better as the year has gone on,” said Woods, who will try to avoid missing the cut in his second straight major. “I just haven’t been able to play as much because I just don’t want to hurt myself pre-[tournament], then I won’t be able to play in the major championships.

“It’s pick your poison, right? Play a lot with the potential of not playing, or not playing and fight being not as sharp.”

Work to do Friday

Along with having arguably the most difficult setup among the four major championships, the U.S. Open also has the toughest 36-hole cut. Only the golfers with the top 60 scores and ties will be around for the final 36 holes this weekend.

The PGA Championship and Open Championship have 36-hole cuts with the top 70 scores and ties. The Masters keeps around the top 50 scores and ties for the weekend, but the first major of the season has a much smaller field than the 156-man field in the U.S. Open.

There were 64 golfers at 2 over or better after the first round.

Phil Mickelson had a score of 9 over during the first round of the U.S. Open. (Photo by Sean M. Haffey/Getty Images)

There are plenty of big-name players with considerable work to do if they’re going to be around for the final two rounds. Reigning FedEx Cup champion Viktor Hovland, whose game finally showed signs of life with a solo third at the PGA Championship, was no match for Pinehurst No. 2 on Thursday, posting an 8-over 78.

Along with Woods and Hovland, they include: Phil Mickelson (9 over), Justin Thomas (7 over), Sahith Theegala (7 over), Will Zalatoris (5 over), Dustin Johnson (4 over), Shane Lowry (4 over), Justin Rose (3 over), Cameron Young (3 over), defending champion Wyndham Clark (3 over), Sam Burns (3 over) and Matt Fitzpatrick (3 over).

The problem with trying to make up ground at Pinehurst No. 2, according to Woods, is that you can get yourself in plenty of trouble when you press to try to make things happen.

“It can go so far the other way here, the wrong way,” Woods said. “It’s just so hard to get back. This is a golf course that doesn’t give up a whole lot of birdies. It gives up a lot of bogeys and higher.”

What about the amateurs?

Ohio State’s Neal Shipley is leading the way in the race for the Jack Nicklaus Medal. (Photo by Gregory Shamus/Getty Images)

There could be a really good battle this weekend for the Jack Nicklaus Medal, which goes to the low amateur, with Ohio State’s Neal Shipley once again leading the way at even par.

You might remember Shipley from the Masters; he was the low amateur at 12-over 300 and beat Woods by 4 shots in a Sunday pairing at Augusta National. He had four birdies, two bogeys and a double-bogey in the first round at Pinehurst No. 2.

“Knowing I’m comfortable out here is just huge,” Shipley said. “Knowing I can compete on hard golf courses against the best of the world, making the cut. It’s huge knowing when I come in here I have the ability to play well.”

Duke’s Bryan Kim (2 over), Vanderbilt’s Gordon Sargent (3 over) and UCLA’s Omar Morales (3 over) are also in the mix.

Sargent earned status on tour for this season through the PGA Tour University Accelerated program, but opted to return to Vanderbilt for his senior season. He deferred his tour membership to June 2025.

Georgia Tech’s Hiroshi Tai, who spent two years in the Republic of Singapore Navy, was 5 over after the first round. He captured an NCAA individual title at Georgia Tech on May 27. He earned invitations to the U.S. Open and Masters in April 2025.

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