SAN FRANCISCO – The lead at the U.S. Open belonged to Michael Thompson. The buzz came from Tiger Woods.
Even as Thompson strung together four birdies on the back nine at the Olympic Club that carried him to a 4-under-par 66, Woods put on a clinic on the other side of the course 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 – tied with four others for second place – to raise hopes that he can finally 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 the Olympic Club.
Only three players broke par from the 78 players who teed off in the morning. David Toms played his own version of U.S. Open golf, relying on a solid short game and the right attitude for a 69.
“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 other “Big Three” at this major – Luke Donald, Rory McIlroy and Lee Westwood, the top three in the world ranking – all were 4 over at the turn. The highlight came from Nick Watney, who made a 2 on the par-5 17th by holing a 5-iron from 190 yards.
All that did was put Watney back at even par as he played his second nine in the afternoon.
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 the 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.