The Sacramento Bee, Paul Kitagaki Jr.) TV OUT MAGS OUT MANDATORY CREDIT, Associated Press
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 three players in the world ranking.
Even as Thompson strung together four birdies on the back nine at Olympic Club that carried him to a 4-under 66, Woods put on a clinic on the other side of the course on how to handle the toughest test in golf.
He has 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 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 Olympic Club.
They weren't the only ones to suffer.
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.
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 also 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."
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.
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