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McIlroy showing major form with bogey-free 65 to share US Open lead with Cantlay

PINEHURST, N.C. (AP) — Rory McIlroy sent his 20-foot birdie putt on its way at the 18th hole Thursday and started walking toward the cup when the ball was still some 6 feet away from falling.
Rory McIlroy, of Northern Ireland, walks to the green on the 18th hole during the first round of the U.S. Open golf tournament Thursday, June 13, 2024, in Pinehurst, N.C. (AP Photo/Matt York)

PINEHURST, N.C. (AP) — Rory McIlroy sent his 20-foot birdie putt on its way at the 18th hole Thursday and started walking toward the cup when the ball was still some 6 feet away from falling. It looked like the walk of a four-time major champion in control of his game on a Pinehurst No. 2 course that demanded every bit of that in the U.S. Open.

Turns out that was about the only thing that didn’t go according to plan.

“I thought I’d left it short. That’s why I walked after it — full disclosure,” McIlroy said. “It looked good, though.”

He looked as good as ever, posting a bogey-free opening round in a major for the first time since last winning one 10 years ago in the British Open. His 5-under 65 gave him a share of the lead with nemesis Patrick Cantlay in a first round that had a little bit of everything.

Scottie Scheffler was over par in the opening round of a major for the first time in two years, Collin Morikawa had two double bogeys and still shot 70. Tyrrell Hatton dropped his club on impact at the par-3 17th hole, kicked his club, watched it land on the green and made birdie.

The final touch was McIlroy's final birdie.

“A great way to finish,” he said. "The way I played today, the way I hit the ball, the way I managed myself, I felt like that score was pretty deserved.”

Cantlay played in the morning beneath a full sun, holing out from a bunker for birdie on his second hole and making a pair of birdie putts in the 20-foot range in an otherwise tidy round marred by only one bogey.

Pinehurst No. 2 was both playable and punishing, yielding 15 rounds under par, the same number as the last time on this Donald Ross gem in 2014.

Scheffler did not have one of them. The world's No. 1 player, coming off his fifth win of the year at the Memorial, was a picture of frustration — clean-shaven and with a fresh haircut — as he didn't have his usual control off the tee.

He still managed a 71 and was very much in the game.

Tiger Woods couldn't say the same. After a good start, he had five bogeys in a seven-hole stretch around the turn for a 74, his 12th consecutive round in the majors without breaking par.

McIlroy was in control from the start, hitting 6-iron to 7 feet at the 528-yard fourth hole — the toughest par 4 on the course — for birdie, and then chipping in from the front of the green on the next hole.

He has the advantage of towering iron shots that land softly, and they were usually pin-high and away from the domed edges of the Pinehurst greens that cause so much trouble.

McIlroy has won majors the last three times he has started with a bogey-free round — at Hoylake in the 2014 British Open, at Kiawah Island in the 2012 PGA Championship and at Congressional in the 2011 U.S. Open.

“Getting off to a good start is important to try to keep yourself up there, because you have to give yourself as big of a cushion as possible, knowing what is lurking around the corner,” McIlroy said.

Ludvig Aberg, in his U.S. Open debut, hit his tee shot to 6 feet on the scary par-3 ninth hole for birdie and a 66. Every major is something new for the rising star from Sweden, who only turned pro a year ago. He was runner-up in the Masters.

Bryson DeChambeau, the runner-up at Valhalla in the PGA Championship last month, and Matthieu Pavon of France were at 67.

Sergio Garcia had the other bogey-free round — 17 pars and a birdie — in his 25th consecutive time playing the U.S. Open. He also played in the morning and didn't seem particularly alarmed by Cantlay's 65. That matches the low opening round in four U.S. Opens at Pinehurst No. 2.

“There’s always going to be someone that hits the ball great, everything goes his way, makes a couple of bombs, and you can shoot it,” Garcia said. “You might see someone shooting another 66 or 65 or something like that. 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 kind of scores.”

It shouldn't be a surprise to see Cantlay contending given he has no real weakness in his game, except for his performance in the majors. He has only four top 10s in his 26 major starts since returning from a serious back injury in 2017, and only one real chance at winning one.

McIlroy and Cantlay never saw eye-to-eye during their time on the PGA Tour board as it tried to negotiate an agreement with the Saudi-backers of LIV Golf, and McIlroy was on the losing in a tense fourballs match in Rome last fall when Cantlay buried a 45-foot putt at the end.

Cantlay watched his best friend in golf — Xander Schauffele, who opened with a 70 at Pinehurst — finally win a major last month. His start was enough to at least wonder if his time is coming next.

“I've been working really hard on my game,” Cantlay said. “And usually when you make just a couple changes and you're working really hard, it's just a matter of time.”

Cantlay isn't known to be verbose on many subjects, particularly when it comes to his performance in golf's most important championships. He also has rejected notions that his time on the PGA Tour board during the divide with LIV Golf has been a distraction.

Whatever the case, this was a good day of work.

But it was still a test, and some of the scores would indicate that. Viktor Hovland had to make a tough par at the end for 78. Justin Thomas had a 77 and Will Zalatoris, who typically thrives in the majors, was at 75. Dustin Johnson joined the group at 74.

Five-time major champion Brooks Koepka was sailing along and dropped a 35-foot birdie putt for birdie on the par-5 10th to reach 3 under in the morning. He had three bogeys coming in and had to settle for a 70.

Colin Morikawa, who has played in the final group at the first two majors of the year, hit a decent bunker shot on the par-3 ninth that rolled by the cup 2 feet and then took a slope and stopped rolling 80 feet away, leading to double bogey. He took another double bogey on the par-3 15th and still managed a 70 by holing a bunker shot on the par-3 17th for birdie and finishing with a 30-foot birdie putt on the 18th.

“Hit two poor shots and one bad bunker shot. It wasn’t that bad on 9,” he said. “But other than that, I felt like I played pretty good. Very, very happy I got out with even par after today.”


AP golf:

Doug Ferguson, The Associated Press

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