SAN FRANCISCO -- "That was the old Tiger. That was beautiful to watch."
The quote came not from a fan or a media member, but from Bubba Watson, one-third of the supergroup that had fans piling onto the course with bags under their eyes at 7:30 on Thursday morning. And from his first tee shot to his final putt, Tiger was the "old Tiger" in the first round of the 2012 U.S. Open.
As Phil Mickelson put his tee shot into the trees along the right side -- never to be found again -- and Watson put his into right rough so thick it took all he had just to advance the ball a few yards, Woods stepped up and calmly piped his first shot of the day -- one of just three drivers he hit. It was a sign of things to come.
Mickelson and Watson spent their day chasing around tee shots while struggling to find the fairway. Woods, for the most part, played safe and in control, opting to leave his driver in the bag the majority of the time, and ended up with a 1-under 69 for his discretion. The conservative play left him with long irons into the green, but it didn't matter. Just as it is at any U.S. Open, the name of the game is finding fairways and avoiding the primary cut of the rough, which is 3-plus inches thick at The Olympic Club.
Off the tee, Woods found comfort in his stinging 2-iron -- a low, high-spin shot that comes as second nature to him. With fairways running lightning quick, length wasn't much of an issue -- he was able to chase his irons off the tee out to a manageable distance while keeping his ball in play throughout the day.
Those massive misses we saw at The Masters? Nowhere to be seen on Thursday from Tiger, and practically the opposite for Mickelson and Watson. Woods's ball-striking was on point throughout the day while he watched his immediate competition in the supergroup melt.
The numbers speak for themselves: 10 of 14 fairways and 11 of 18 greens hit, and some of those misses were by inches, thanks to short grass that simply will not hold shots. Once on the green, Woods was content to lag it up close, leaving himself 1-foot par putts throughout the round. Despite greens that have been rolling incredibly fast, he was able to judge the speed and avoid leaving himself tough comebackers, for the most part.
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It was all part of the plan after the golf course sped up overnight. In the morning, when most expected the greens would be receptive, the players found rock-solid putting surfaces and fairways that ran for miles. It was a surprise that necessitated a quick adjustment -- trading drivers and woods for irons and keeping the ball below the hole on approaches. Tiger made that adjustment.
On a course that demands a full arsenal of shots -- from draws to fades, from low-trajectory to high -- Woods showed off just about everything he had in the bag. And he executed for five and a half hours as the rest of the field, save for Michael Thompson, was being beaten up by Olympic.
As a result, Tiger is under par following the first round of the U.S. Open for the first time since 2002. And he's under par after a miserable day made red numbers almost impossible to come by.
For the rest of the field, it's a bad sign. As Tiger's confidence in his swing and gameplan grows -- and Thursday's round was a huge boost -- you'll hear more of those familiar roars. You know the ones: They echo through courses on Sundays at majors from huge galleries, providing the soundtrack to a guy in a red shirt thriving under pressure.
This tournament won't be won on Thursday, but Tiger, for once, has something solid to build upon. He's not digging himself out of a hole. He's not working on the range until dark, trying to figure out what's wrong with his swing. And he's not struggling to find a strategy that works.
For a day, the old Tiger was back, and it was incredibly fun to watch him go to work. Now all he has to do is keep it going for three more rounds.
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