Rickie Fowler reacts after putting on the 12th hole during the first round of the 2014 U.S. Open golf tournament at Pinehurst Resort Country Club No. 2 Course. (USA TODAY Sports: Kevin Liles)
PINEHURST, N.C. — Phil Mickelson, who has suffered more U.S. Open heartache than any other player, thrilled his fans as he moved into contention on Thursday for the only major title which has eluded him.
The American left-hander, who has been a runner-up in his national championship a record six times, ground out an even-par 70 in the opening round at Pinehurst Resort to finish two strokes off the early pace.
“I drove it great,” five-times major winner Mickelson, whose most recent runner-up finish at the U.S. Open came last year at Merion, told reporters. “Every time I hit driver, I hit the fairway.
“I putted OK but didn’t make the ones you need to make, the 15, 20-footers, you need to have a good round.”
American Kevin Na and Northern Ireland’s Graeme McDowell, the 2010 U.S. Open champion at Pebble Beach, both opened with 68s on Pinehurst’s fabled No. 2 Course where danger lurked on virtually every hole because of the unique turtle-back greens.
Swedish world number two Henrik Stenson, Japan’s Hideki Matsuyama and Americans Matt Kuchar, Brandt Snedeker, Jordan Spieth and Brendon Todd carded 69s while defending champion Justin Rose of England launched his title defense with a 72.
“I got off to a great start,” Na told reporters after mixing an eagle at the par-five fifth with three birdies and three bogeys on an increasingly firm and fast-running layout. “I had an early tee time and I was able to capitalize on that.
“A long way to go and I’m obviously at two-under par right now, but at the end of the tournament, I think even par is going to win this championship.”
McDowell was delighted with his course management to start the season’s second major as he recovered from an early bogey with an eagle at the fifth before picking up another shot at the par-four 14th.
“I’m very pleased,” said the 34-year-old from Portrush. “It wasn’t my best ball-striking display this morning, but you don’t have to strike it amazing around here, you just have to position the ball correctly at all times.
“I spent the last few days just preparing myself mentally for the challenge, really, knowing that this golf course wasn’t going to give much and it was only going to take.”
Snedeker, a six-times winner on the PGA Tour who is seeking his first major victory, made a sizzling start to reach the turn in four-under 31 but then went bogey, double, bogey to slide down the leaderboard.
“I got off to a great start on the front nine, and hit a bunch of quality shots, left them in the right places,” said the fast-talking American who totalled six birdies on the day.
“Conversely, on the back nine, I had a lot of tough putts and didn’t handle them well. My speed was definitely off a little bit. As the greens got faster, I didn’t adjust and hit some poor putts coming in.
“I don’t know how I made six birdies today, but you’re not going to have that very often. You need to take advantage of those shots when you can use them.”
Northern Irish world number six Rory McIlroy, the 2011 U.S. Open champion at Congressional where he blew away the field with a stunning eight-stroke victory, opened with a 71.
World number one Adam Scott was among the late starters, and was grouped with fellow Masters champions Bubba Watson and Charl Schwartzel in one of the most eye-catching trios of the day.
Australian Scott, who will be seeking his second major title after clinching his first at last year’s Masters, is among the favorites at Pinehurst after winning four times in his last 17 starts worldwide.