As advertised, there was no gabbing among Tiger Woods, Phil Mickelson, and Bubba Watson as the three megastars made their way around The Olympic Club in Thursday’s opening round of the U.S. Open. Instead, Woods left his playing partners mumbling to themselves as he raced off to a spot near the top of the leaderboard while the two lefties in the marquee group struggled to make it to the clubhouse.
Mickelson got off to a horrid start, losing a ball on his first drive off No. 9, made three consecutive bogeys, and hit more trees and galleries than fairways early, on his way to a 6-over 76. He settled down somewhat with five straight birdies after a bogey on the 670-yard, par-5 16th until he three-putted for bogey on the fourth and made another on the fifth.
For whatever reason, Mickelson may have entered the tourney unprepared to tackle the challenging 7,170-yard, par-70 track. His coach Butch Harmon reportedly said on Sky Sports that Phil arrived late to the course Thursday morning, leaving himself little practice time, and was generally uncomfortable.
For sure, something seemed to be going on with Mickelson, who blamed overall fatigue for his withdrawal from the Memorial Tournament after carding an opening-round 79 at Jack Nicklaus’ tourney earlier this month. Before Mickelson hit his drive on the 256-yard, par-4 seventh, NBC Sports’ Johnny Miller declared the four-time majors winner essentially done.
“The first round, for some reason, in a U.S. Open, is almost the round,” Miller said. “If you shoot 74, 5, 6 -- at least in the last 20-something years -- you are not going to win.”
Mickelson limped in after hitting only seven of 14 fairways and eight greens in regulation. If he can bring anything positive from his round it was that he needed only 28 putts.
Meanwhile, Watson, who inexplicably hit his pink Ping driver off the deck on the 16th -- among other head-scratchers -- was dangerously close to shooting an 80, a score he worried about making earlier in the week.
“I don't want to come out here and shoot 80,” Watson told reporters on Tuesday. “As of right now I don't like [the course]. There's an 80 lurking.”
The reigning Masters champ finished at 8-over -- tied with 14-year-old amateur Andy Zhang and just six clear of DFL among players with morning tee times. Miller pronounced Watson’s drive from the seventh tee that failed to cut back toward the green, “a nutty shot.”
Woods, on the other hand, demonstrated excellent rhythm from tee to green, hitting bullets down the fairways and draining putts. At 2-under after his third birdie of the day, at No. 5, the three-time Open winner was making his presence felt as he climbed to within one stroke of early leader Michael Thompson.
A rare missed approach shot to the sixth green landed Woods in a green-side bunker. He blasted out well past the hole and two-putted for a bogey to drop to 1-under heading to his 17th. After another errant bunker shot on the seventh, Woods had to settle for par, while Thompson birdied his 18th to move three clear of Tiger at 1-under 69.
Despite the late mishaps, Woods clearly sent a message to the rest of the field that he had brought his A-game from his win at the Memorial to the PGA Tour’s second major of the season.
“Just something solid, something consistent,” Woods told NBC following his fourth under-par opening round in a U.S. Open. “Today was tricky... they sure sped up this golf course. The greens were springy, the fairways came alive and some of the clubs we were hitting in practice rounds were out the door, had to make adjustments on the fly....It’s gonna be a hell of a test and as the week goes on its only gonna get harder.”