ERIN, Wisconsin — As Dustin Johnson approached his ball buried in the tall grass on 17, a fan standing just a few feet away offered a little pick-me up to the world’s No. 1 player.
“You got a nice bounce off my arm, Justin,” the fan said proudly as he patted his right arm.
It was that sort of day for Johnson, who either didn’t notice the misspeak or didn’t care, because by that point his first round in defense of his 2016 U.S. Open title was already in the crapper.
Starting on the back nine, he’d double-bogeyed 14, bogeyed 15 and was on his way to wasting a birdie at 16 with the errant drive on 17 that would lead to yet another bogey.
Three over in four holes isn’t a blueprint for disaster for the average duffer – like, for example, the guy in the gallery who just called the best player in the world by the wrong name – but it’s a death knell at this U.S. Open. Just a few holes ahead Rickie Fowler was turning Erin Hills into his own personal pitch-and-putt, with four birdies on his front nine, another three on his back en route to a 7-under 65. Even though Johnson played even-par golf the rest of the way, it still left him 10 strokes back after Round 1.
“Where I went wrong is when I laid it up in the hay,” Johnson said matter-of-factly after his round, referring to his brutal 14th. “Got it on the green and three-putted for double. A great hole I played there.”
And just like that, the prohibitive favorite coming in is already on the ropes. By the time Johnson walked off the green on his final hole, 41 players were in red numbers. That’s certainly not what the USGA wants nor expects of its national championship, where the unstated goal is even par as a winning score.
Erin Hills, hosting its first Open, certainly looks the part and carries the length – more than 7,700 yards, longest in tourney history – but it failed to provide much bite on Thursday.
Fowler’s 65 tied the record for lowest score to par in an opening round at a U.S. Open. Four others shot 5-under 67. And for those who did struggle, they weren’t citing the course as the reason for their difficulties.
“I had 15 looks at birdie today and all of them were actual makeable putts and I only made one of them,” a deflated Jordan Spieth said after shooting a 1-over 73. “If I get that many looks, I normally shoot 8-under par.”
That’s a number both he and Johnson, paired together in the opening two rounds, will need Friday to climb back into contention if not to just make the cut. And then they gotta hope Fowler and the rest atop the Thursday leaderboard don’t do the same.
It’s a tall order, one that was certainly on Johnson’s mind Thursday as he made the 300-some-yard trek from the No. 9 green (his final hole) to the clubhouse. Walking in near silence, it felt like a bit of a death march for last year’s U.S. Open winner. He isn’t done yet, but just 18 holes in, his chances are certainly on life support.
“I hit enough fairways today to shoot a good score,” Johnson said. “But I’ve definitely got to roll it better. I’m swinging good, everything feels good; I just need to make more putts here.”
Which is always sort of the name of the game. Even Justin should know that.
More U.S. Open coverage from Yahoo Sports:
• Viewer’s guide: Erin Hills breakdown, TV times, picks and more!
• Power rankings: Top 10 expert picks for Erin Hills
• Watch: Who wins at tough Erin Hills?
• Johnson ready for Open after birth of baby