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2021 U.S. Open: Rory McIlroy among stars starting strong as an all-time leaderboard may be ahead

LA JOLLA, Calif. — Torrey Pines might not be the architectural wonder we normally get from U.S. Open tracks, but that might be the reason it is on pace to produce an all-time leaderboard come the weekend. A suspended first round at Torrey resulted in Louis Oosthuizen and Russell Henley co-leading at 4 under, but the list of names within four of the lead is laugh-out-loud good.

You can already envision the cream in this field rising to the top as the next three days wear on. Just take a look at all of the names in contention after 18 holes — all within four shots of the leaders through one day of action.

  • Francesco Molinari (1 back)
  • Brooks Koepka (2 back)
  • Jon Rahm (2 back)
  • Xander Schauffele (2 back)
  • Matthew Wolff (3 back)
  • Tyrrell Hatton (3 back)
  • Rory McIlroy (3 back)
  • Adam Scott (3 back)
  • Patrick Cantlay (3 back)
  • Sergio Garcia (4 back)
  • Lee Westwood (4 back)
  • Paul Casey (4 back)
  • Dustin Johnson (4 back)

As for why this happens at a place like Torrey? That’s up for debate. Some of it is simple: We almost always get stacked leaderboards at major championships. That’s not necessarily a given, though.

Some of it has to do with the way this course plays. It is brawny so you have to be super long, but it also allows some big misses off the tee, which some have suggested is why Tiger Woods has won here eight times over the course of his career.

“You can get away with some wayward shots off the tee, and I did today,” said Rory McIlroy, who is looking for his second U.S. Open title. “But I was able to recover well and hit greens. And if you can just keep hitting greens out here, that’s the name of the game. And I did that well.”

Destroy the ball and hit greens. This is a good description of the modern PGA Tour, so it makes sense that the players most suited to play great golf on the PGA Tour would also be playing great golf at a track like Torrey Pines. It is an annual stop after all.

Sometimes when major championships go to incredibly unique venues, the leaderboards can get a little goofy. This is by design; it’s how those courses are set up from a risk-reward standpoint. Torrey is different, and while that means it shares no architectural DNA with a Winged Foot or a Shinnecock — it receives rightful critiques for just that — it might also mean we get one of the great major finishes of the last few decades.

Regardless of the architecture of the place, though, the U.S. Open will always be a mental war for the golfers both within themselves and the golf course itself. As the sun started to set on Thursday and the cool of a San Diego evening began to descend on the place, fans filed out of the course and some of the best in the world had to absolutely grind their way home.

McIlroy (-1) was one of those. After playing the front nine in 2 under, he had a bumpy start to the back nine before a sweet par save on No. 17 and a birdie putt in the near dark on No. 18 got him home in 70. He twirled his arm at the handful of fans who had withstood an incredibly long day and bounced into the scoring tent to sign his card.

“Everything felt pretty good,” said McIlroy. “I think, as the course gets firmer, we’re just going to really have to dial in. You might have 170 to a pin, but you’re really trying to land it like 160, 162. So just really being aware of how firm the course is getting, [you] just have to really concentrate on that.”

The USGA almost always lets scores go a little bit over the first day or two before pulling everyone back in on the weekend. I suspect this year will be no different, and I that should mean those elite players who are lurking will jump the pretenders as the weekend starts to form. They’re the one-namers: Rory, Dustin, Brooks, Hideki, Louis. It’s a better top 25 than usual after the first day, and Torrey seems intent on delivering one of the best weekend boards imaginable.