PINEHURST — Every time Webb Simpson walked past a grandstand at Pinehurst No. 2 on Thursday, he got a shout-out from a fan.
Then on the 18th hole, after Simpson struck his first putt, one fan yelled: “Go Deacs!”
If there is a “local” favorite at the U.S. Open, there’s no question it’s Simpson, who won this tournament two years ago at Olympic Club in San Francisco.
Simpson, 28, has a lot of in-state fans to draw from. He grew up in Raleigh, played in college at Wake Forest and lives in Charlotte. He shot a 1-over 71 on Thursday in a relatively uneventful opening round.
Not quite the score Simpson had in mind after feeling good in practice rounds, but he’s also not going to complain.
“I had one of those days where I think it could have gone either way,” he said. “I’ve been hitting it really well, leading up to today. I was kind of hanging in there at the end.”
Simpson was even par through 15 holes but bogeyed the 16th after an errant tee shot found its way to the natural area down the left side of the fairway.
His tee shot on the par-3 17th found the trap on the left of the green, but he scrambled to save par. He had a textbook par on the 18th for his 71.
Much has been made about the changes at the famed No. 2 course and the removal of the Bermuda rough, in favor of the natural sandy areas, which can get tricky with wire grass.
“I prefer this native area over the Bermuda rough,” Simpson said. “More times than not, you have a shot to the green. And it seems like the sand is bare enough to where if it dings off one of the bushes, it will end up in a flat spot.”
Simpson said the greens were softer than they were in the practice rounds but he had no problem with the set-up.
“It was fair,” he said. “It was one of those days where I felt like if you played well, you could shoot under par. If not, you could still shoot mid to high 70s.”
Simpson teed off early, the sixth group off the first tee at 7:40 a.m., and with former U.S. Open champions Rory McIlroy (2011) and Graeme McDowell (2010).
McDowell, who shot a 2-under 68, had a share of the lead with Kevin Na early.
Simpson shot an even-par 35 on the front nine, with bogeys on the sixth and seventh holes and birdies on the first and fifth. He birdied the par-5 10th to start the back nine but gave a stroke back on the 11th.
His tee shot on the 11th actually found an ant hill in one of the natural waste areas.
“I was trying to argue it was a red ant pile,” Simpson said with a grin. “I had a bad lie and I was trying to use the rule to my advantage, but I didn’t get relief.”
Simpson, McIlroy and McDowell are scheduled to tee off at 1:25 p.m. Friday, going off on the 10th hole.