Rickie Fowler quickly answered any questions about the toughness of Erin Hills by shooting a 7-under 65 on Thursday morning, tying the U.S. Open record for the lowest opening-round score in relation to par, a mark shared by Jack Nicklaus and Tom Weiskop (who both shot a 7-under 63 at Baltusrol in 1980). With 18 golfers from the first wave of tee times in the clubhouse with red numbers (there were just 11 such rounds in the entire first round last year), the 2017 Open is setting up to be more shootout than survival.
While the second half of the field is out Thursday evening, Fowler sits as the clubhouse leader after his best-ever U.S. Open score. For whoever wakes up Friday morning with the first-round lead (whether it's Fowler or somebody else), what are the odds they'll be holding a trophy aloft on Sunday (or Monday)?
Can Fowler follow up Sergio at the Masters by becoming a well-deserving, long-awaited first-time major winner? A look at the round-by-round leaderboards at Tiger-era U.S. Opens (1997 and beyond) suggest the odds aren't great, but are far from slim.
The first-round leader has won the Open outright four times in the past 20 years. All four of those wins came in the biggest routs in tournament history. Tiger at Pebble in 2000, Tiger at Bethpage in 2002, Rory at Congressional in 2011 and Martin Kaymar at Pinehurst in 2014 each went out fast and kept the pace for 72 holes, joining a list of four other men who went wire-to-wire in the 117 playings of the Open. In 2001, Retief Goosen was also a first-round leader and ultimately won the tournament in an 18-hole playoff against Mark Brooks.
If only five of the 31 first-round leaders (with ties) of the past 20 years have won the event, how have the other 26 leaders fared? It's a mixed bag. Seven players were in contention on Sunday and finished in second place. Others fell off the leaderboard as quickly as they got onto it, with nine finishing the tournament 20th place or worse.
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The two worst performances by first-round leaders came in the same year, when Kevin Streelman and Justin Hicks shot identical 68s to top the leaderboard at the 2008 Open. They would end up finishing a staggering T53 and T74, respectively. Hicks had a four-shot lead on Tiger Woods on Thursday night and then, on Sunday night, finished 18 strokes off the pace, a net 22-shot gain for Tiger in the final three rounds.
Let's reverse it. Where do winners usually stand after the first round? The median position over the last two decades of U.S. Open play is a tie for 7th, suggesting the field may not be as wide open as it might seem, particularly with the low scores making it harder to make up strokes.
The worst first-round placement for an eventual winner was the T37 for Lee Janzen at Olympic in 1998. The seven strokes he made up in the final three rounds also stand as the biggest first-day deficit erased by a champion.
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Janzen is a bigger outlier than you might think. Only two other golfers were placed in the 20s after the first round of their Open wins and then only barely. Webb Simpson made up the second-biggest deficit of the past two decades when he came back from a first-day T23 to win at - perhaps not coincidentally - the same Olympic Country Club where Janzen won his Open. The other 20+ comeback was by Goosen, who won his two Opens in completely different fashions. In his first, he held at least a share of the lead from Thursday to his win in the Monday playoff. In his second in 2004, Goosen was T20 after the first round. Other than those three years, winners have been either in the single-digits or teens at the end of the first round.
Some players who will be placed in the 20s or higher (and, in some cases, much higher) after Thursday: Jordan Spieth, Dustin Johnson, Billy Horschel and everybody's Open Cinderella story, Jon Rahm.
In case you were wondering: The worst performance by player on first page of a Thursday leaderboard was Scott Hend at Congressional in 2011. He was T4 after the first round and, following a 9-over second round, didn't make the cut.
Here's how the last 20 first-round leaders fared at the Open and how the last 20 champions did after their first rounds.
2016 U.S Open (Oakmont)
First-round leader: Andrew Landry (final result: T15)
Winner: Dustin Johnson (after first round: T2, one shot behind after first round)