The grouping of the world's top three players in order—Tiger Woods, Rory McIlroy and Adam Scott—provided plenty of excitement during Thursday's U.S. Open action in Ardmore, Pennsylvania.
However, it was the recent Masters winner Scott who took center stage, holing out for birdie on his 11th and final hole of the day to get to three-under—tied with Phil Mickelson for second place and just one shot off current leader Luke Donald.
It was a bit more of a struggle for Woods, who had two three-putts and sits at plus-two, with a par putt remaining on No. 11 to stay there.
McIlroy's troubles with the flatstick continue, as he missed several birdie opportunities and three-putted the 11th to drop to even-par for the championship.
Scott may be on top, but he's never had a Top 10 at the U.S. Open, and considering Woods and McIlroy are past champions, neither of them can be counted out, either. No matter who leads when Round 1 is over, it shouldn't be indicative of an eventual champion, as ESPN Stats & Info highlights:
What does an 18-hole lead mean at the U.S. Open? Not much. Just once over last 10 yrs (Rory McIlroy in 2011) has the 18-hole leader won.— ESPN Stats & Info (@ESPNStatsInfo) June 13, 2013
Below is a breakdown and predictions with regard to how these superstars will perform on Friday at the tough Merion Golf Club.
Note: Statistics and past tournament information are courtesy of PGATour.com.
When Woods teed it up at the Memorial Tournament in the start that preceded this event, he was No. 1 on the PGA Tour in strokes gained putting. Something has happened since then, though, because he's simply not the same on the greens.
Woods' judgment of speed was off at Muirfield, and that looks to be the case at Merion as well.
Another unfortunate but more sudden development occurred Thursday when Woods began shaking his left wrist when he hit out of the rough on the opening hole. That happened several times throughout his day, which isn't a good sign.
Golf Channel's Jason Sobel observed a noticeable difference in Woods, whose grimacing countenance and level of play were certainly out of the ordinary:
No mistaking it now: Tiger Woods is hurting. If this wasn’t a major, he might be out. Doesn’t WD from majors, though.— Jason Sobel (@JasonSobelGC) June 14, 2013
But come on. This is the site where Ben Hogan won the 1950 U.S. Open with that legendary 1-iron shot about a year and a half after a near fatal car accident. Woods won his last major—the 2008 U.S. Open—essentially hobbling on one leg.
It wouldn't be surprising to see Woods grind it out on Friday, surrender no fewer strokes, and get back on track to contend for major No. 15.
The world No. 2 has simply not possessed the magic he did last season when he holed a plethora of clutch putts en route to winning both major tour money lists.
McIlroy is definitely still a factor, and his ball-striking has been mostly peerless thus far. To win here, though, it will take a bold effort on the tricky putting surfaces and the fortitude to convert difficult par saves.
Shane Bacon of Yahoo! pointed to McIlroy's on-course demeanor, and how it seems to be a little more depressing than the Northern Irishman's characteristic upbeat bounce in his step:
Man does Rory McIlroy have some terrible body language this season. Bad. Bad-bad.— Shane Bacon (@shanebacon) June 13, 2013
With the way McIlroy is striping it and how long he is, the final five holes shouldn't be as difficult for him as most of the other players in the field. That treacherous stretch will be more easily navigable with shorter irons in his hands, and that should keep him around level par on Friday.
What will make or break McIlroy is how well he rolls the rock. Should he suddenly snap out of that funk, he'll be as dangerous as anyone.
Unlike McIlroy and Woods who finished far off the pace at the Memorial, Scott entered the U.S. Open playing reasonably well, finishing a respectable T13 in Dublin.
With a week to fine-tune his preparation, it's pretty clear that Scott is out to prove his triumph at Augusta National wasn't a fluke, or an achievement he would become complacent with despite finally getting the major monkey off his back.
Scott's status at minus-three was in jeopardy when it was unclear whether he grounded his club in the hazard at No. 5. Thankfully, as Stephanie Wei humorously documented, there was no penalty:
USGA officials concluded Adam Scott did not ground his club in the hazard on 5. No breach of the rule. All is good. #muchadoaboutnothing— Stephanie Wei (@StephanieWei) June 14, 2013
Having Steve Williams—Woods' ex-caddie—on the bag definitely helps Scott's cause, and his long game continues to be spot-on.
In recent history, it's been either Woods or McIlroy at the center of Grand Slam hype. Perhaps it is time to give Scott some love in that regard, because he's showing no signs of slowing down and shouldn't on Day 2.