By DOUG FERGUSON, AP Golf Writer
BROOKLINE, Mass. (AP) — Adam Hadwin can be excused for the first round of the U.S. Open — the so-called toughest test in golf — giving him a chance to expire.
Hadwin was at home in Canada last week for his own national open, an even bigger deal as the pandemic had canceled the Canadian Open the previous two years and golf-mad fans brought in tremendous energy.
Moreover, he has been shielded from the endless chatter and speculation of the Saudi-backed rival league that has been in the spotlight all week at the Country Club.
No wonder he came away Thursday with a 4-under 66 for the best score in 63 innings at major championships and a one-shot lead over Rory McIlroy and four others.
“Nice to be here and rest a few days and start this week,” Hadwin said. “Not that the golf course is getting any easier. But yeah, in some cases it was definitely a bit more relaxed than last week.
All lingering thoughts of league rivals came from McIlroy – not from anything he said but from the golf he played.
This time his bold statement came from a clean card and some tough pars required at the US Open. McIlroy didn’t bogey until his last hole when he missed the green and threw his club, a brief tantrum that revealed as much desire as frustration.
He had a 67 which left him in the big chasing pack with four players, all of whom had to go through a 36-hole qualifier – Callum Tarren of England, David Lingmerth of Sweden, MJ Daffue of South Africa and Joel Dahman.
On the other end was Phil Mickelson, who celebrated his 52nd birthday – on the golf course, anyway – with a four-putt double bogey en route to a 78.
Hadwin birdied three straight to finish the front nine for 31, and he dropped just one shot on the back nine for his 66. His previous low score in a major was 68 on three occasions, the most recently in the first round of the 2020 PGA. Championship at Harding Park.
McIlroy has become a prominent voice on the PGA Tour in recent years, particularly with his rebuke of the Saudi-funded series that is disrupting golf. Thursday was a reminder that he is also very good at his day job.
McIlroy birdied back-to-back at the end of his round to become the first player to reach 4 under, only to miss the ninth green and make his only bogey.
At the moment, McIlroy isn’t concerned about his tough stance against LIV Golf.
“It’s been eight years since I won a major,” he said. “And I just want to get my hands on it again.”
Even with a strong start and a win last week at the Canadian Open, it doesn’t look easy for McIlroy or anyone else. The Country Club could be as accommodating as it gets all week, with moderate wind and cloud cover preventing the sun from making the greens crisp and firm.
And the best anyone could do was a 66.
The 68-year-old group included two-time major winner Dustin Johnson, Justin Rose and Matt Fitzpatrick, who won the US Amateur at Brookline in 2013.
For McIlroy, it was his second straight major – and the third time in his last four US Opens – he opened with a score under par. There’s confidence in his game for winning last week in Toronto, and there’s a rare passion for a Thursday unless the game goes badly.
He tried to drive the par-4 accessible fifth hole and caught an awkward lie in the thick neck above a bunker, forcing him to stand in the sand. He hit that into another bunker, then slammed the club into the sand twice in frustration. But he managed to save the normal.
“You’re going to encounter things at a US Open, whether it’s lies or things like that, that you won’t really encounter another week,” he said. “It’s hard not to be frustrated because I’m walking up there thinking, ‘Just get back in the bunker.’ The thickest rough on the course is around the edges of the bunker, so I was kind of cursing the USGA every time I stepped up to the ball.
And then from the ninth fairway, his approach sailed to the right and he threw his club. He couldn’t save par on that one and had to accept a 67 – not a bad start, and no excuse for his few outbursts of emotion.
“Almost to remind you sometimes how much it means to you,” he said.
There’s plenty on the table outside of golf, too, with 13 players at the US Open taking part in Saudi-backed LIV Golf last week, leading to the PGA Tour suspending those members. .
McIlroy, the first to shut down rival league talk in 2020, spoke passionately this week about building the legacy passed down by Arnold Palmer and Jack Nicklaus. For those taking the guaranteed money for 54-hole events, he said it was “the easy way out”.
But now it’s time for golf, and there’s a mood of relief that could look to a US Open that first came to Brookline more than a century ago. Thursday was more about birdies and bogeys – mostly the latter in a US Open – and a place in history.
No other major is more open – around half of the 156 players need to qualify – and it showed. Seven of the top 13 came out of qualifying, including Hadwin. He was the Dallas section’s first substitute and came on when Paul Casey withdrew with an ailing back.
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