By Steve Keating
PEBBLE BEACH, CA., June 13 (Reuters) - Rickie Fowler, Xander Schauffele and Louis Oosthuizen made flying starts to share the U.S. Open first-round clubhouse lead on five-under-par 66 as players plundered Pebble Beach on Thursday.
A championship renowned as the toughest test in golf turned into a birdie-fest in near perfect morning conditions, with little wind and soft greens leaving the venerable course at the mercy of the world's finest.
Fowler drove the ball with metronomic efficiency, and came within a whisker of matching Tiger Woods for the best round ever in an Open at Pebble Beach, but a birdie putt at the par-five 18th shaved the hole without dropping.
"To be honest I felt that was about as bad as I could have shot," said Fowler, who has gone close to winning several major championships without quite getting across the finish line in first place.
"It's nice when you can go shoot a stress-free 66 and get off to a good start."
His score was soon matched by fellow American Schauffele, who eagled the last with a 10-foot putt.
Moments later, South African Oosthuizen, the 2010 British Open champion, sank a 50-foot bunker shot for an unlikely birdie at his final hole, the par-four ninth, to make it a three-way tie for the lead.
McILROY TWO BEHIND
They led by one stroke from American Scott Piercy, while Rory McIlroy headed a group two behind with half the field back in the clubhouse.
Woods, the 2000 champion at Pebble, and two-times defending champion Brooks Koepka were among the big guns with late tee times.
McIlroy, who missed the cut at the last three U.S. Opens, rode a wave of momentum into Pebble Beach, coming off a rampaging win at the Canadian Open.
But he hardly made the best of starts. Playing the back nine first, he stumbled out of the gate with a bogey at the 10th after short-siding himself with a poor iron shot.
That would be only miscue by the Northern Irishman, who is bidding to become the first player in 119 years to win the U.S. Open after victory the week before the major.
Aided by a sizzling putter, which he very nearly left in Canada, McIlroy jumped up the leaderboard with four birdies.
During the winner's ceremony on Sunday at the Hamilton Golf & Country Club, McIlroy traded his putter for a Toronto Raptors jersey and forgot to take it back before later sending caddie Harry Diamond to retrieve the flat stick.
McIlroy's day in the office was done before Koepka and Woods teed off in a breeze that while not exactly a gale had gathered enough strength to suggest afternoon scores would not be quite as good.
Koepka has won four majors in the last two years but Woods remains golf's top attraction and was surrounded by massive galleries as he began his quest to add to his haul of 15 majors, which includes a record 15-shot runaway win at Pebble Beach in 2000, when he shot an opening 65.
(Reporting by Steve Keating; Writing by Andrew Both in Cary, North Carolina; Editing by Toby Davis and Ed Osmond)
The views and opinions expressed herein are the views and opinions of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of Nasdaq, Inc.