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 US 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 US 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 US 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 US 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 US 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 US 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 US 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 US 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 US 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.”
Dustin Johnson, Hunter Mahan and Ryder Cup captain Davis Love III were at 70, along with Robert Garrigus, who tied for third last year at the US Open by breaking par in all four rounds. He feigned a yawn coming out of the clubhouse Thursday. ”Just another round under par here,” he said.
His 70 in the opening round of the AT&T National felt more like a 67.
”I was flying irons around the hole and they were gone,” he said, referring to the firmness of the greens.
It was a big day for Hurley, for so many reasons — a Navy man at a tournament that celebrates the military, on a Congressional golf course not far from where he learned to play golf and then attended the Naval Academy.
”I think they started Plebe summer today,” Hurley said, grinning.
Hurley played bogey-free until a litany of bad breaks on his last hole. His tee shot hit a tree and went even farther left, making it tough to even get back to the fairway. His third shot that he laid up short of the green settled into a divot. And his par putt from 20 feet hit a spike mark.
Even so, he was happy with the start.
”This is a heck of a golf course,” Hurley said. ”You have to hit a lot of quality shots, and I was able to do that. Even at this place, you hit quality shots that end up with not a good look at birdie sometimes.”