Martin Kaymer in charge
A month after winning golf's so-called 'fifth major', Ryder Cup hero Martin Kaymer charged into the lead of one of the real things at the US Open.
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Kaymer carded six birdies and one bogey to record a superb five-under-par 65 at Pinehurst, claiming a three-shot lead over former champion Graeme McDowell, Americans Kevin Na and Fran Quinn plus Zimbabwe's Brendon de Jonge.
The 29-year-old German, who won the US PGA in August 2010 and became world number one for eight weeks the following February, became just the fourth European to win the Players Championship in 41 years last month.
Now the man who ensured Europe would retain the Ryder Cup with the 'Miracle at Medinah' in 2012 reproduced that form on Thursday, his 65 beating the previous lowest score in a US Open at Pinehurst of 66 by Peter Hedblom in 2005.
"When you win the Players it's pretty much as if you have won a major, the way the field is," said Kaymer, who equalled the course record with an opening 63 at Sawgrass.
"I needed a win, whether it was the Players or a PGA Tour event for my confidence, to feel it's worth it for all the hard work I have put in over the last couple of years.
"That was a nice, huge win and, coming into the US Open and the next few weeks with big events, it's nice if you've just won before. I'm very happy.
"I was asked before what score I would take at the end of the week and I said eight over, so hopefully that's not going to happen now. The course played more difficult on Monday, Tuesday and Wednesday - they must have put more water on the greens last night.
"I watched some golf this morning and thought it was more playable and even in the afternoon we could stop the ball on the greens. It's an exceptional score and very nice to lead the tournament, but I was very surprised the course played fairly soft."
McDowell had earlier celebrated confirmation of the Open's return to his home course of Portrush by firing an eagle, one birdie and one bogey to shoot 68 - his lowest opening round in a US Open.
Sweden's Henrik Stenson, who can overtake Adam Scott as world number one by claiming his first major title on Sunday, was among a 10-strong group in on one under as the early starters in particular made the most of more receptive greens than had been expected.
Six-time runner-up Phil Mickelson, looking to become only the sixth player to win all four major titles, was another shot back on level par alongside English duo Ian Poulter and Paul Casey and Welshman Jamie Donaldson.
Sheffield amateur Matt Fitzpatrick briefly held a share of the lead after starting with two birdies in his first three holes, the 19-year-old eventually signing for a 71, one better than playing partner and defending champion Justin Rose. Former champion Rory McIlroy was alongside Fitzpatrick on one over.
McDowell admitted the early starters had enjoyed the luck of the draw, and the decision of tournament officials to water the course after the expected rain failed to materialise.
"I spent the last few days just preparing myself mentally for the challenge, knowing that this golf course wasn't going to give much and it was only going to take," 2010 champion McDowell said. "I really felt like I got my head in the right place the last few days.
"It wasn't my best ball-striking display this morning, but you don't have to strike it amazing around here, you just have to position the ball correctly at all times, and with a tiny bit more moisture this morning we got lucky.
"In practice yesterday the golf course seemed to be very firm, kind of a weekend set up. I guess the USGA were really relying on some rain last night, which didn't come. I'm assuming they put some water on this place this morning and we were able to take advantage of that a little bit early on, and actually think about getting at some of those flags."
Speaking about the Open Championship returning to Portrush in 2019 - it was last staged there in 1951 - McDowell added: "That's extremely exciting. I've been kind of hesitant to comment because I really didn't want to take anything away from the official announcement (the R&A are holding a press conference in Portrush on Monday).
"I'm very proud of where I grew up. I'm very proud of the tradition and history there and to bring an Open Championship back to Northern Ireland is very special. It speaks volumes about how far the country has come.
"It's going to be a very special thing for Northern Ireland and Ireland in general. I just hope I'm exempt and playing well. It's been a dream of mine as a kid. I've spent many an hour out there as a kid and dreaming of playing major championships. To have a major championship come to Portrush - (especially) the Open Championship - is special stuff.
"It's the result of a lot of gentle ribbing in the direction of Mr Dawson (R&A chief executive Peter Dawson) the last four or five years from myself and (Rory) McIlroy and (Darren) Clarke. Nice to see the fruits of our labour, I suppose."