U.S. Open 2024: Rory McIlroy in perfect position to end 'The Drought'

McIlroy and Patrick Cantlay share the lead going into Round 2 of the U.S. Open

PINEHURST, N.C. — Rory McIlroy thought he’d left his birdie putt short on 18, and began stalking toward it in frustration. Then, lo and behold, the ball kept scooting along Pinehurst’s ice-rink-slick green and dropped right in the cup, giving McIlroy a share of the Day 1 lead at the U.S. Open.

Yeah, it was that kind of day for Rory, and for quite a few other players too.

McIlroy and Patrick Cantlay each tied the record for low round at a Pinehurst U.S. Open with dueling 5-under 65s, and they weren’t the only ones who made No. 2’s wicked greens and challenging wiregrass look manageable. Ludvig Åberg finished one stroke back, and Matthieu Pavon and Bryson DeChambeau carded 3-under rounds.

“Nice to open up with a low one and feel like you're right in the tournament from the first day,” McIlroy said in an understatement. This is, after all, Year 10 of his quest to win major No. 5. “Certainly the major championships that I've won or the ones that I've played well at, I've always seemed to get off to a good start, and it's nice to get off to another one.”

For a while, the morning wave appeared to have a distinct advantage. Cantlay, who teed off at 7:40 a.m. on Thursday, planted the -5 flag. Åberg, who started his day 11 minutes later, followed up with a steady performance, as did Pavon (8:13 a.m. start) and Tony Finau (-2, in Åberg’s group).

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

But, apparently, the flip side was also true.

“I think we got lucky,” said McIlroy, who teed off at 1:14 p.m. “There was a lot of humidity early in the day, and then there was quite a lot of cloud cover the whole way through the day so it kept the golf course from getting too fiery.”

The season’s two reigning major champions, Scottie Scheffler and Xander Schauffele, couldn’t keep pace with McIlroy, their playing group partner. Schauffele struggled early, at one point bogeying three of four holes, but steadied himself and finished at even par. Scheffler, meanwhile, never looked comfortable all day. Maybe it was his new, tight haircut, but the world No. 1 finished with three bogeys against two birdies to end the day at +1.

PINEHURST, NORTH CAROLINA - JUNE 13: Rory McIlroy of Northern Ireland and Scottie Scheffler of the United States speak on the 18th green after completing their round during the first round of the 124th U.S. Open at Pinehurst Resort on June 13, 2024 in Pinehurst, North Carolina. (Photo by Sean M. Haffey/Getty Images)
Rory McIlroy bettered World No. 1 (and playing partner Thursday) Scottie Scheffler by six strokes in Round 1. (Sean M. Haffey/Getty Images)

Cantlay is best known at this point for his string-pulling, behind-the-scenes role in the ongoing PGA Tour-LIV Golf negotiations, and for being the target of European Ryder Cup fans’ hat-related wrath last fall. His record at majors is less-than-spectacular — only one top-5 in the entirety of his 12-year professional career. But on Thursday, he used his short game to perfection, carding six birdies — including four in his second nine — to carve out a lead on a tricky course.

Many of his more accomplished colleagues weren’t as lucky. Justin Thomas and Sahith Theegala both finished at +7, buried deep among the amateurs. Viktor Hovland and Will Zalatoris were only two strokes better at +5. Tiger Woods finished at +4. All will need help to make the cut, help that might not be coming.

“With the weather cooperating, it being warm, I imagine they can get the golf course as difficult as they want, with the Bermuda greens and no rain in the forecast,” Cantlay said. “I expect the golf course to play very difficult in the next few days.”

“Selfishly for me, getting back out there in the morning (on Friday), it's going to be nice,” McIlroy said. “Hopefully the clouds clear away and it's a nice clear day for the guys in the afternoon.”

The key to Pinehurst, Åberg suggests, is playing smart rather than playing to targets. “I don't think we're trying to chase a number, per se. I think we're just trying to manage our way around the golf course,” he said after his round. “Pinehurst is hard as it is. It's going to be difficult, it's going to be tricky. … All we try to do is just hit as many good shots as we can to the areas that we're playing for, then see where that adds up.” (Bear in mind this is literally the first U.S. Open round the 24-year-old Åberg has ever played, but he seemed to do well enough.)

You had your chance to go low, everybody. Buckle up. Pinehurst only gets tougher from here.