PINEHURST — With butterflies in his stomach and size 30 pants bunched around his even smaller waist, 17-year-old Will Grimmer walked up to the tee box at No. 10, ready for his first shot of his first U.S. Open.
His drive went 260 yards, landing in the fairway. As Grimmer was walking down the 617-yard par-5, he turned as a roar went up from the 14th green. Another amateur, Matthew Fitzpatrick, 19, was over there, hearing yet another wave of support for his playing partner, Phil Mickelson.
“With everyone supporting Phil, you feel kind of left out and everyone is against you,” Fitzpatrick said. “But at the same time, to hear the cheers like that is pretty special.”
Major championship golf is a constant learning experience for the amateurs, with most of the lessons being delivered through failure. Pinehurst No. 2 has a habit of eating up experienced golfers, let alone those just beginning their careers.
It wasn’t all bad for the youngest members of the field, though. Fitzpatrick played quite well, finishing 1-over while playing with Mickelson, the most popular player in the field, and 2013 champion Justin Rose.
Even Brandon McIver, a rising junior at Oregon who finished 12-over, took a glass-half-full approach after his round.
And after posting a 42 (7-over) through his first nine holes, Grimmer made the turn and fired an even-par 35 on the front nine, posting one of the most satisfying 77s the U.S. Open has seen.
“I had a lot more birdies than I expected, I had five out there today,” Grimmer said, displaying poise well beyond his years. “I turned what could have been an 85 into a 77. If I go out and play the way I did those last nine holes all 18 tomorrow, who knows, if scores go up I might have a chance at making the cut.”
A quiet start
Around a dozen people made the trip from Grimmer’s hometown of Cincinnati and followed him around No. 2. His high school coach, Denny Nead, was there, and could tell his pupil was off after a bunker shot on 13 fell short of the green, setting up another bogey. His dad, Kevin, kept wandering away from his wife and daughter, standing or crouching alone. After Grimmer’s first birdie, a result of a putt in the 10-to-12-foot range on 14, Kevin sprung up, pumped his fist and exchanged a few high-fives, a momentary relief from the swirl of emotions a father feels while watching his son.
Grimmer’s best friend, Michael Misleh, a year his senior, served as his caddie. His 13-year-old sister, Ashley, navigated the course like a pro, saying she has been there eight times for previous tournaments. She doesn’t play though, only occasionally making exceptions for a family four-some – she’s too competitive, she said, and it’s no fun playing with her brother when she can never beat him.
There wasn’t much to cheer about as Grimmer progressed through the back nine. A wedge shot on 16, his third on the 528-year par-4, hit the front edge of the green before rolling back down. Grimmer was still furthest from the hole, so he had to hit again. He three-putted about 7 feet from the hole on 17, but seeing the crowd made his adrenaline surge, as he pushed the putt through the break and about four feet past the hole. Then he missed again coming back.
As he navigated through the unruly natural grass wasteland on the right side of 18, his first shot from there failed to get up in the air, trickling forward about 30 yards before leaving him in an awkward position where his feet were positioned above the ball. “Looks like me,” an overweight, graying man remarked as Grimmer’s third shot on the par-4 dribbled out into the fairway.
“After the front nine I would have been happy breaking 80,” said Grimmer, a rising senior who plans to play at Ohio State in the fall of 2015. “I don’t get nervous for tournaments anymore, but today was an exception. It was awesome, a lot of fun. And it was nerve-wracking.”
‘I’m pretty happy’
But then, Grimmer ran off three straight birdies on Nos. 1, 2 and 3, and he finished his round on a high note, birdying No. 9.
“To go to the front and shoot a 35 after a 42 in the U.S. Open, I mean, that would be impressive if it was just a regular junior event,” he said. “To do that with all those people in the U.S. Open, I’m pretty happy.”
No one played in front of more people than Fitzpatrick, thanks to his pairing with Rose and Mickelson. Not even an inadvertent penalty on No. 8 could rattle him. His 58-degree wedge touched the ball when he addressed it behind the green, and he called the rules official over, taking a penalty stroke to replace the ball. Fitzpatrick made his bogey putt and carried on his way. Pleased and disappointed was how he described his day.
Rose and Mickelson did their best to make Fitzpatrick, the reining U.S. Amateur champion, feel comfortable, and Mickelson tried to crack a joke with the Englishmen. But it didn’t quite connect.
“On the par-5 fifth, his ball rolled and hit my marker, and it was right in front of it,” Fitzpatrick said. “He came over said said, ‘Oh, is that alright there?’ Well, he was obviously joking, and I didn’t think he was, so I was like, ‘I’m going to need that moved.’ And he said, ‘Don’t worry, I’m joking.’
“But then he did say that I saved him probably about two feet, so, I guess if he does win, I’ve contributed a little bit.”
Even McIver, who spoke Wednesday of how happy he was to be in the field before shooting a disappointing 82 (+12) Thursday, could poke fun at himself after his round.
“I just learned how hard major championship golf is,” he said. “You can’t get the ball out of position, and, if you do, you’re going to pay the price.”
“I paid the price a lot.”