In a Star Pairing, Woods Is the Star
SAN FRANCISCO — The first tee box at the hilly Olympic Club is a tabletop plateau perched 25 feet above a winding sidewalk. The customary way to reach the tee is a 15-step staircase.
That is how Phil Mickelson and Bubba Watson found their way to the hole Thursday. They had begun their round on the ninth hole, and by the time they came to the first tee, Mickelson and Watson had already played 10 difficult holes in a combined nine over par. They tramped up the stairs, their legs heavy and their expressions weary.
Their playing partner, Tiger Woods, apparently never considered the stairs. He took a treacherous shortcut, galloping up the long, steep, grassy sides of the tee box as if attacking a rampart. When Woods got to the top, he surveyed the high ground — momentarily unaccompanied — then turned to Mickelson and Watson as they finally ascended to the teeing ground.
Woods shot them a look that seemed to say, “Would you guys mind keeping up?”
It was a virtual and figurative demonstration of who was in charge in the featured pairing of the first round of the 112th United States Open. A minute later, Woods split the fairway with a titanic 3-wood, a shot that led to a par on what may be the golf course’s hardest hole.
No wonder he was in a hurry to get there.
“That was the old Tiger today,” Watson said minutes after Woods finished with a one-under par 69. “That was beautiful to watch. That’s what we all want to watch and that was awesome to see him strike the ball like that.”
Watson, who looked uncomfortable from the moment he emerged from the clubhouse, would stagger to a 78. Mickelson, who lost his first tee shot of the day in a tree, was only slightly better, shooting a 76.
If Watson was a bit premature to declare that the old Woods was back, it was without question at least a one-day display of golf from Woods’s prime. Dressed in a dull, military gray, Woods was systematic and orderly, executing a strategic plan that called for precision and meticulous forethought.
Woods hit his driver just three times, often opting for irons off the tee — laser strikes that settled in the shortest grass over and over. Carefully sculptured approach shots to the middle or safe parts of greens followed. Then with the nerve missing so often the past few years, he turned even 70-foot lag putts into easy, two-putt pars.
“That was the plan,” Woods said. “Don’t hit it in the rough, get it on the green, then make a good lag putt for a kick-in par.”
Woods made, at most, two notable mistakes. He missed a three-and-a-half-foot birdie putt on the second hole and his blast from the sand on the seventh hole was not well aimed and trundled off the green, which ruined another good birdie chance. Otherwise, Woods — serious, stoic, calm but determined — played a dastardly golf course with mechanical proficiency.
As Mickelson, who on Tuesday was giddy about renewing his head-to-head rivalry with Woods, said: “Tiger had really solid control of his flight and trajectory. It was impressive.”
Teeing off in the early morning, it appeared that two-thirds of the fans at Olympic were following the Woods-Mickelson-Watson pairing. And yet, none of the hundreds standing on the right side of the group’s first hole — the ninth — saw where Mickelson’s opening drive came down.
“It hit the big tree and I think it stayed up there because no one heard it or saw it come down,” Mickelson said.
Mickelson did well to bogey that hole but he did not start hitting it any better thereafter, bogeying the next two holes as well.
Watson, meanwhile, looked distracted and unnerved from the start just being in the spotlight. He remained genial but much too wayward for such a punishing layout and was soon walking behind or apart from Woods and Mickelson on most every fairway.
“The golf course beat me up pretty good,” Watson said. “It’s a good golf course, just not good for me.”
While the crowd was split evenly in its allegiance as the day began, it soon turned into a Woods crowd. The always popular Mickelson had his supporters but there developed an inevitability that things were not going Phil’s way.
When Mickelson hit a ball into the gallery on the 14th hole, he waded into the crowd and stood over his ball practicing his rescue from the rough. A fan kneeling near Mickelson as he took his practice swings said, “Don’t hit me, Phil.”
Another fan said, “Then go stand in the fairway.”
The Woods momentum continued even when he did stumble from his established plan. His birdie putt from 25 feet above the fifth hole was struck too hard and would have rolled, according to Woods, off the front of the green had it not instead fallen into the hole.
“A fluke,” Woods said.
Otherwise, Woods was not making much of his opening round. When Watson’s comments about “the old Tiger” were related to him, he sidestepped them. When told that Mickelson said he was impressive, Woods did not respond at first.
Then he said, “We’ve got three days to go.”
With that, Woods pivoted forcefully to his left, descended a small staircase two steps at a time and jogged out a back door.
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