San Francisco. Tiger Woods made his best start to a US Open in a decade on Thursday, firing a one-under 69 on San Francisco’s brutal Olympic Club course to send out a stark warning to the rest of the field.
That early morning broadside put the 36-year-old former world No. 1 into equal second place, three strokes behind surprise first round leader, 27-year-old US qualifier Michael Thompson.
The confident manner Woods opened the tournament will boost his hopes of winning a record-equalling fourth US Open title on Sunday, four years after he won the last of his 14 majors at nearby Pebble Beach.
“I had a good game plan going in and I executed all the way through and ended up with a score under par. Which was nice,” Woods said.
“I felt very pleased with every facet of my game and I stayed very patient out there.”
Level with Woods on 69 was 2001 USPGA champion David Toms, a veteran of 45 who has won just one tournament in the last six years as he battled a succession of injuries, US outsider Nick Watney and former European No. 1 Justin Rose of England.
There then followed an international mix of players on level-par 70 — 17-year-old US amateur Beau Hossler, US qualifier Jason Bohn, J.B. Park of South Korea, Sweden’s Robert Karlsson and Alistair Presnell of Australia.
But it was a crushing day for two of the top American hopes — Phil Mickelson and Bubba Watson — who were in the day’s glamor grouping alongside Woods.
Five-time US Open runner-up Mickelson struggled badly, losing a ball in the gnarled Monterey Cypress trees with his opening drive and never really settling into his game after that as he limped along to a six-over 76.
Masters champion Bubba Watson fared even worse as he sprayed the ball off the tee with his distinctive pink driver en route to a horrendous 78.
English hopes were left bruised and battered also as world No. 1 Luke Donald had a day to forget with nine bogeys in a demoralizing 79 that will once again raise question-marks over whether he can one day win a major title.
Countryman and playing partner Lee Westwood battled back from a poor start for a creditable 73, while the third member of the afternoon’s top grouping — defending champion Rory McIlroy — also struggled.
The 23-year-old Ulsterman produced none of the fireworks we saw from him last year at Congressional in Washington as he stumbled along to a 77 and a battle on his hands just to make the cut.
With only a few groupings left out on the course, only five players had managed to complete their rounds under par, testimony to the toughness of the rolling par-70 Lake Course, which is hosting the US Open for the fifth time.
Woods was coming off a win in his last tournament, The Memorial, but has struggled for consistency of late, best illustrated by a tie for 40th in the Masters in April — the worst performance of his professional career in the year’s first major.
But, starting from the ninth hole, he was immediately into his stride splitting the first four fairways as he opened with five straight pars.
A bogey on the 14th was cancelled by a birdie on the par-five 17th where he holed from four feet as he went out in level par 36.
Woods then stayed steady through the Lake Course’s feared opening six holes highlighted by back-to-back birdies at the fourth and fifth — where he sunk putts from 10 feet and then 30 feet.
He dropped one though at the next after failing to get up and down from a bunker having pushed his approach shot, and parred his way in from there.
The unheralded Thompson, a runner-up in the US Amateur Championship here in 2007, had seven birdies against three bogeys in his round of 66.
“This is one of my favorite golf courses. So I’ve got good feelings coming in here. I just got the putter hot today,” he said.
Toms said that on such a demanding course, total concentration was the key.
“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,” he said.
Watney owed his presence so high up the leaderboard to an albatross two on the par-five 17th — just the third double-eagle in US Open history.