SAN FRANCISCO – The lead at the U.S. Open belonged to Michael Thompson. The buzz came from Tiger Woods.
And the struggles came from the top three players in the world.
Even as Thompson strung together four birdies on the back nine at Olympic Club that carried him to a 4-under- par 66, Woods put on a clinic on the other side of the course Thursday morning on how to handle the toughest test in golf.
He was never out of position. None of his tee shots found the deep, nasty rough lining the fairways. There was little stress for such a demanding major.
With consecutive birdies late in his round, including a 35-foot putt that banged into the back of the cup on No. 5, Woods opened with a 1-under 69 to raise hopes that he finally can end that four-year drought in the majors.
“I felt like I had control of my game all day,” Woods said. “Just stuck to my game plan – and executed my game plan.”
He was vague on the details of that plan, though it surely wasn’t the one followed by the other two guys in his star-powered group. Phil Mickelson hit a wild hook for his opening tee shot that was never found, presumably lost in a cypress tree, and he matched his worst opening round in a U.S. Open at 76. Bubba Watson chopped his way through the rough to a 78, showing that “Bubba Golf” works better at Augusta National than at Olympic Club.
They weren’t the only ones to suffer.
Only six players managed to break par in the opening round, which would have come as a surprise to none of the players. After opening with a birdie, Joe Ogilvie turned to his caddie and said, “Seventy-one more pars and we’re hoisting the trophy.” He shot 73.
Luke Donald, the No. 1 player in the world, is trying to capture his first major. It most likely won’t be this one. He failed to make a single birdie and shot 79. He played with Rory McIlroy, the defending champion and No. 2 in the world, who shot a 77. Lee Westwood, No. 3 in the world and the other member of the rank group, was 4 over through six holes and rallied for a 73.
The shocking numbers: The top three in the world ranking combined for three birdies.
“It shows how tough it is,” Donald said. “There aren’t that many opportunities out there.”
McIlroy said to a pool reporter that he simply got out of position. What didn’t need saying is that Olympic Club, in firm conditions and with fairways that are among the toughest to hit, is a far different test from Congressional, where the 23-year-old shattered the U.S. Open scoring record at 16-under 268.
The good news for McIlroy? His record is safe here.
“Anything just a little off and it really punishes you,” McIlroy said. “You have to be precise with your tee shots and your iron shots and leave it on the right side of the pins, and today I didn’t really do any of that.”
Nick Watney holed out from the fairway for an albatross 2 on the par-5 17th hole, sending him to a 69. Graeme McDowell, who won the U.S. Open two years ago down the coast at Pebble Beach, and Justin Rose had 69 in the faster conditions of afternoon.
David Toms shot his 69 in the morning, relying on a solid short game and a good attitude.
“You really just have to concentrate, give it your all on every shot and never give in to the golf course, because it will punish you if your attitude is not good, if your concentration is not good,” Toms said. “There’s just too many hard shots out there to really ever give in to it and not be there.”
The group at 70 included Jim Furyk, Matt Kuchar and 17-year-old Beau Hossler, already playing in his second U.S. Open.
Thompson’s game seems to work on this quirky, tree-lined course built on the side of a giant dune that separates the Pacific Ocean from Lake Merced.
He was runner-up in the 2007 U.S. Amateur at Olympic Club and couldn’t wait to get back.
After a roller coaster of a front nine that featured consecutive bogeys and holing a bunker shot for birdie on the downhill par-3 third hole, Thompson hit his stride on the back nine, even if hardly anyone was watching.
He made five consecutive 3s — three of them birdies — and closed his dream round with a 10-foot birdie putt on the short, tough 18th for the lead. Thompson took only 22 putts.
“On the back side, the putter ... seems like every putt went in the hole,” said Thompson, a 27-year-old playing his first U.S. Open as a pro. “Got a little nervous there once all those cameras showed up. It’s always a little bit of an adjustment. In that sense, I kind of wish I was Phil or Tiger, because you get the cameras from the beginning.”
There weren’t enough cameras or fans to find Mickelson’s opening tee shot, but it was easy to find Woods.
He missed only four fairways — three of them that ran off the severe slopes and into the first cut, the other into a bunker on the 256-yard seventh hole, which is where he was aiming. The only glitch was failing to get the ball closer to the hole with short irons, including the 14th when it landed on the back of the green and bounced off the base of the grandstand.
That led to one of his two bogeys, the other at No. 6 with a poor bunker shot. The only surprise was a good one — the 35-foot birdie putt on the fifth that he struck too hard and worried it might lead to a three-putt until the hole got in the way.
“Five was a fluke,” Woods said. “That putt was off the green.”
Olympic wasn’t that simple for most everyone else.
Watson was asked about his strategy of hitting his pink-painted driver. “I shot 8 over, so not very good,” he said. The next question was how he played out of the rough with short irons in his hand. “I shot 8 over, so not very good,” he said.
“You could answer these yourself,” he said.
A marine layer in the morning allowed for cool, overcast conditions that eventually gave way to sunshine. That didn’t help. Steve Marino opened with an 84. Zach Johnson didn’t feel as though he played all that badly until he signed for a 77. Padraig Harrington thought the course was fair, and allowed for good scores. But he had two four-putts and a three-putt that ruined a reasonable day and gave him a 74.
“It just goes to show that firm greens scare the life out of professional golfers,” Harrington said.
Mickelson was looking forward to playing with Woods — the last time they were together, Lefty closed with a 64 and buried him at Pebble Beach in February — but he could not have envisioned a worse start. The hook was bad enough. But as Mickelson approached the gallery and looked for a crowd surrounding his ball, his eyes widened when a marshal told him, “No one heard it come down.”
Five minutes later, he was on his way back to the tee.
Mickelson made an unlikely bogey on the hole, added two more bogeys and was fighting the rest of the day. A three-putt late in the round cost him dearly, and now Mickelson can only hope he’s around for the weekend.
“I can’t really think about the lead or anything,” said Mickelson, who was 10 shots behind. “I’ve just got to make the cut right now, and to do that I’ve got to shoot something under par.”
Woods is coming off his second win of the year at Memorial, and while that made him the favorite at the U.S. Open, recent history left some questions.
He won Bay Hill by five shots going into the Masters, and then had his worst performance as a pro at Augusta National. Woods said he wasn’t hitting the ball as consistently well in the spring, not like he is now. And it showed.
“That was the old Tiger,” Watson said. “That was beautiful to watch. That’s what we all come to see. That’s what we all want to watch, and that was awesome to see him strike the ball good.”
It wasn’t enough for the lead, but it was enough to break par, which is never bad at Olympic Club.
Thompson, who said he had only a few hundred people following his group, understands all the fuss over a 14-time major champion who is showing signs of returning to the top of his game. He was more than happy with a 66 and his name atop the leaderboard, and he made it clear he wasn’t going to settle for one good round.
“A lot of people don’t know who I am, and I’m totally OK with that because I’ve always been a player that just kind of hangs around,” Thompson said. “I don’t give up very easily and I’m very proud of that. Give Tiger the spotlight. I don’t care. I’m going to go out and play my game. If I go out and putt the way I did today, I’ll be contention.”