As first impressions go, the South Course at Torrey Pines Golf Course didn’t leave a positive one on Russell Henley.
A first-round 79 in the 2014 Farmers Insurance Open – which also uses the North Course here – led to a missed cut and the Georgia native opting to omit the late-January event from his annual West Coast PGA Tour itinerary.
“I don't remember [much] besides leaving the course feeling like I just got beat up,” said Henley, a three-time PGA Tour winner.
Sometimes time and a little confidence can heal old wounds.
On Thursday in the first round of the 121st US Open Championship, Henley punched back. A four-under-par 67 gave the 32-year-old the clubhouse lead, with Louis Oosthuizen, of South Africa, also at four under with two holes to play when Round 1 was suspended due to darkness. A 90-minute fog delay on Thursday morning led to the circumstance in which 36 players were unable to complete the round before dark.
Oosthuizen, playing in the afternoon wave, bogied the par-4 11th, his second of the day, before playing five-under-par golf over the next 14 holes. Should Oosthuizen, the winner of the 2010 Open Championship at St. Andrews, maintain his position or pass Henley when Round 1 play resumes Friday at 6:50 a.m. PDT, it would be the first time he has owned the first-round lead in a major championship. He is facing a 30-footer for birdie on the par-3 8th.
Two Europeans – 2018 Open Championship winner Francesco Molinari, of Italy, and Rafa Cabrera Bello, of Spain – shot 68s, while the group lurking two strokes back includes two-time US Open champion Brooks Koepka, hometown favorite Xander Schauffele, reigning Masters champion Hideki Matsuyama and Jon Rahm, whose first PGA Tour win came at Torrey Pines in the 2017 Farmers Insurance Open.
Henley, who also shared the first-round lead in his last US Open start in 2018 at Shinnecock Hills, didn’t allow the delay to the start of Round 1 affect his day, even though he hit a poor 9-iron approach to the 440-yard 1st hole for an opening bogey. Birdies on Nos. 5, 7 and 8 produced a front-nine 33, and his lone back-nine blemish on No.12 was offset by three more birdies, including on the par-5 closing hole. He finished +3.97 in strokes-gained putting, a major improvement from his season average of +0.08.
“I feel like I'm a top-50 player in the world. I've had a ton of top-10s. I've been in contention. I've been really consistent. That doesn't mean I'm going to do that the next three days, but I definitely felt comfortable out there." – Russell Henley
“I feel like I'm a top-50 player in the world,” said Henley, who noted that some of the best performances of his career have come in the last year, despite not producing any wins. “I've had a ton of top-10s. I've been in contention. I've been really consistent.
“That doesn't mean I'm going to do that the next three days, but I definitely felt comfortable out there. I don't feel like it's a huge surprise because I do feel like I've played some good golf in some bigger events in the last year. But in terms of putting four rounds together at a US Open, I've struggled with that. I'm just going to keep trying.”
Oosthuizen is certainly no stranger to US Open leader boards. In his last six starts, the 38-year-old owns a tie for second (2015), a solo third (2020) and a share of seventh (2019). His metronomic swing and even-keel demeanor are ideal traits to succeed in the game’s biggest events.
He just hasn’t managed to get a second title. Oosthuizen lost a three-hole aggregate playoff in 2015 at St. Andrews to Zach Johnson, a sudden-death playoff to Bubba Watson in the 2012 Masters and tied for second in the 2017 US PGA Championship at Quail Hollow in Charlotte, N.C.
“I just enjoy playing really tough golf courses,” Oosthuizen said. “I think somehow I focus a little bit better when I play those courses, knowing that the margin for error is really small. Especially around this place, you've got to drive it well, you've got to start it in the fairway, and you're going to have trouble if you're missing fairways … and I've really been driving it good lately.”
Cabrera Bello had the lone bogey-free round on Thursday. A survivor of the June 7 Columbus, Ohio, final qualifier, the Spaniard registered just his second clean card in 101 major-championship rounds. Last September at Winged Foot, the 37-year-old with six professional victories – all in Europe – opened with a 68, only to falter on the weekend and finish in a tie for 23rd. Improving that result, Cabrera Bello said, comes down to better focus.
“The fact that your concentration needs to be at 100 percent if not more on every shot,” Cabrera Bello said. “I feel like many times I just make silly mistakes because I could potentially lose concentration a second, and here [in the US Open] I'm like with this sixth sense on the game, and that helps me. The fact that it's a major, it also motivates me.”