Cantlay, McIlroy share first-round lead after 65s at Pinehurst

Will the 124th U.S. Open at Pinehurst Resort & Country Club’s Course No. 2 produce yet another first-time major champion? Or will one of the game’s greats end a 10-year major championship drought? 

Patrick Cantlay has long been a player with the unsanctimonious label of being one of the best to have not broken through in one of the game’s four Grand Slam events, especially at this championship, where his best finish in eight starts is a share of 14th in 2022 and 2023.

If his opening round on Thursday at Donald Ross’ masterpiece portends what will occur over the next three days, then the 32-year-old native Southern Californian, who now resides in Jupiter, Fla., might get his name off that unwanted list.

Cantlay, McIlroy share first-round lead after 65s at Pinehurst Thursday

Patrick Cantlay/photo by Sandhills Sentinel photographer Cow McFarland

Cantlay, coming off a T-53 in last month’s PGA Championship and winless on the PGA Tour since the 2022 BMW Championship, carded a 5-under-par 65 that was later matched in the afternoon by 2011 champion Rory McIlroy, winless in the game’s biggest four championships since the 2014 PGA Championship at Valhalla. 

They own a one-stroke lead over U.S. Open rookie Ludvig Åberg, while 2020 champion, Bryson DeChambeau, and 2024 Farmers Insurance Open winner, Matthieu Pavon, of France, are two back after 3-under 67s. Raleigh, resident and left-hander Akshay Bhatia, Tony Finau and Tyrrell Hatton — all seeking a first major title — were another stroke back. Bhatia, a two-time PGA Tour winner, could become the first southpaw to win a U.S. Open.

The large group at 1-under 69 included Sergio Garcia, who is playing in his 25th consecutive U.S. Open, 2022 U.S. Amateur champion Sam Bennett, Belgium native Thomas Detry and Canadian Corey Conners. 

McIlroy’s bogey-free performance and Cantlay’s near-flawless effort (six birdies, one bogey) were among the 33 scores at par or better on an idyllic mid-June day in the North Carolina Sandhills. The scoring average for Round 1 was 73.2.

Should Cantlay hoist the trophy on Sunday, he would be the sixth consecutive first-time major winner of the U.S. Open, dating to Gary Woodland at Pebble Beach. The last time the U.S. Open had six consecutive first-time major winners was from 1973-78, when Johnny Miller started the trend at Oakmont, and Andy North ended it at Cherry Hills. The current streak of five was previously matched from 1992-96 (Tom Kite at Pebble Beach and ending with Steve Jones at Oakland Hills). 

Of course, McIlroy, the 35-year-old Northern Irishman, would also like to see his major-less drought end at 36 starts. During that stretch, he’s registered 20 top-10s, which include his runner-up finish a year ago to Wyndham Clark at The Los Angeles Country Club. In 2022, he finished no worse than solo eighth in all four majors, including second at the Masters Tournament to Scottie Scheffler. 

Cantlay and McIlroy share first-round lead after 65s at Pinehurst

Scottie Scheffler/Photo by Sandhills Sentinel photographer Mary Anne Pfrogner.

Cantlay hasn’t had as much heartache in majors. But one would have expected him to own one by now, especially when you look at how decorated his amateur and professional career has been to date.

Prior to turning pro, the then-UCLA All-American was the low amateur in the 2011 U.S. Open, reached the final of the 2011 U.S. Amateur at Erin Hills, and played on the 2011 USA Walker Cup Team. As a collegian, he won the Haskins Award for being the top player and the Mickelson Award, given annually to the nation’s top freshman. He even carded a 60 in the 2011 Travelers Championship a week after the U.S. Open, the lowest 18-hole score ever shot by an amateur in a PGA Tour event.

Since turning pro in 2012, he’s claimed eight PGA Tour titles, competed on two Ryder Cup Teams and two Presidents Cup Teams.

The key to Thursday’s round was making clutch par putts, including a nifty up-and-down from 81 feet on No. 7. Starting on the par-5 10th hole, Cantlay birdied 11, 18, 1, 5, 6 and 8 with the lone blemish coming on the 206-yard, par-3 15th hole.

He holed out from a greenside bunker on No. 11, made a 17-footer on 18, stuffed his approach on No. 1 to 5 feet, two-putted the par-5 fifth green from 47 feet, made a 21-footer on the 230-yard, par-3 sixth and closed the run with a 4-footer on the 486-yard eighth.

“I knew going off at 7:40 in the morning, it’s going to play maybe the easiest it will play all week, with the lack of wind and probably the softest we will see it,” said Cantlay. “I’m really happy with the round I played today.”

As good as Cantlay was in the morning wave, McIlroy might have been better in the afternoon. He registered the seventh bogey-free round in Pinehurst U.S. Open history — the sixth came earlier in the day from Garcia — that included a 20-foot birdie on No. 18 to put an exclamation point on a day that saw him hit 15 of 18 greens and 11 of 14 fairways.

After rolling in a 7-foot birdie on the 528-yard, fourth hole, statistically the second toughest in Round 1 with a scoring average of 4.45, McIlroy followed by holing a chip from 67 feet for birdie at the par-5 fifth. An up-and-down par save on the sixth when he pitched to 20 inches from 60 feet kept the momentum going. He made a 6½-footer for birdie on the par-5 10th and an 11-footer at the 523-yard 16th to reach 4 under par before capping the round off at 18.

“I thought I’d left it short,” said McIlroy when asked why he started walking before the putt dropped. “That’s why I walked off it. Full disclosure. It looked good, though.

“I felt like my patience was rewarded there with birdies on two of the last three holes. It was really nice to finish like that. As I said, a nice bit of momentum going into the morning round tomorrow.”

Prior to April’s Masters, Åberg had not played in a single major championship, despite being a captain’s pick to Luke Donald’s European Ryder Cup Team last fall. A star at Texas Tech who competed in the 2019 U.S. Amateur at Pinehurst, the 24-year-old Swede has enjoyed a meteoric rise up the Official World Golf Ranking over the past 12 months. Now currently sixth in the world, Åberg already has won on the PGA Tour (2023 RSM Classic at Sea Island Golf Club), the DP World Tour (2023 Omega European Masters) and posted a runner-up finish to world No. 1 Scottie Scheffler in the Masters.

Bothered by a knee injury, he missed the cut at last month’s PGA Championship. Showing no signs of that malady, he made six birdies against two bogeys in his first-ever U.S. Open round.

“I’ll absolutely take it,” said Åberg. “Super happy with the way we hit it. Super happy with the execution today. I felt it was really nice and very encouraging. All we can try to do is keep it up and make sure that we’re ready to go tomorrow.”

DeChambeau, the runner-up to Xander Schauffele in the 2024 PGA Championship, was also trending toward a bogey-free round before missing a 9-foot par putt on No. 7, his 16th hole of the day. Pavon did get to 5 under, thanks to a pair of eagles on Nos. 5 and 10, before giving two shots back with bogeys on Nos. 11 and 16. Tommy Fleetwood was the last player to register two eagles in the same round in a U.S. Open, achieving the feat in last year’s final round at The Los Angeles Country Club.

A focused Ludvig Åberg produced a 4-under 66 at Pinehurst No. 2 in his first-ever U.S. Open round on Thursday. (USGA/Kathryn Riley)

All 156 players will play Round 2 on Friday, with the low 60 scorers and ties advancing to the weekend. Round 2 begins at 6:45 a.m. EDT. Television coverage begins on USA Network at 6:30 a.m.

Feature photo: Rory McIlroy. Photo by Sandhills Sentinel photographer Mary Anne Pfrogner.

~Written by David Shefter, USGA.

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