SAN FRANCISCO – In case you are wondering how the Glamour magazine pairing fared in the first round of the U.S. Open, you should know it was one-third pretty and two-thirds R-rated. The R stands for rough.
Pretty at an Open means boring. Boring golf is the best formula at these kind of brutal strait-jacket venues. And so it was Thursday for Tiger Woods at The Olympic Club.
The winner of 14 major championships played chess and performed like a grand master. That doesn’t augur well for the 155 other contestants. He was conservative and, most important, in control.
Conservative like a Tea Party candidate – he used irons off of seven par-4 tees and hit a driver only three times. In control like a prison warden – he hit 10 of 14 fairways. And when Woods is hitting fairways, the rest of the field tends to play uphill and into wind.
Woods’ game plan and strong execution produced a 1-under 69 and evoked memories of his 2006 Open Championship victory at Royal Liverpool. He bludgeoned the course and field with a cleek then, using his big stick but once.
So you might say he Hoylaked his way around the storied turf that rests between the Pacific and a valley filled by Lake Merced. In doing so, he reminded that he is probably golf’s best long-iron player.
“I felt I had control of my game all day,” said Woods, three shots behind leader Michael Thompson. “I was pleased with every facet.”
His precision stood in stark contrast to the wild travails of playing competitors Phil Mickelson and Bubba Watson. Their wayward shots often had observers asking these two questions: Where’s Phil? Where’s Bubba? Such talk had the sound of a children’s book.
Mickelson, four times a major winner and five times an Open runner-up, was out of sorts early and often while shooting a 76 that matched his highest Open first-round score. Watson, the long-hitting Masters champion, admittedly never got into a rhythm and was off on all parts of his game while suffering through a 78.
When last seen, of course, Mickelson shot an opening 79 at the Memorial Tournament and withdrew, citing mental fatigue. The way he started here, he appeared to still be in some sort of haze. He lost a ball in a tree in the right rough on his first hole (No. 9), semi-shanked an approach into a bunker and flubbed a chip at the next, and lipped out a 4-footer after that.
Three holes, three bogeys. As I’ve often said while slashing recreationally myself, you can’t bogey them all unless you bogey the first three. As for fatigue, it was exhausting just watching him.
You got the sense Mickelson might have been mentally and perhaps physically tired even before he hit a second shot. He had to walk back up the steep hill to the ninth tee after losing his ball in that towering tree. Then he made a great bogey save from 6 feet.
In short, Lefty had a case of the rights. His misses usually found the right rough, sometimes the far right rough, particularly early. Added together, he was right of Michele Bachmann if not Idi Amin. The recurring answer to “What will Phil do next?” was “Probably hit a hook.”
On the par-4 14th, after he hooked a 3-wood into right rough, a fan said to him, “Phil, are you going to hit me next?” Mickelson might have lost his tempo at that point, but not his sense of humor, for he cracked, “Go stand in the fairway.”
His hooked 3-wood second shot at the long 16th was followed by his own, “Fore, right!” The crowd scattered, and he ended up with his fifth bogey in eight holes.
It was around that time that one wondered: Didn’t anyone tell Phil that the first six holes on the other nine are supposed to be the difficult stretch?
Then came the Metaphor of the Day.
After Mickelson drove far right into rough at the par-5 17th, he pull-hooked a fairway-metal shot that rolled down a hill far to the right of the green. His ball came to rest by a plastic garbage bag. Volunteers had to move three such garbage bags before he could play his next shot.
“It’ll be a tough challenge to get to play the weekend,” Mickelson said. “I’ve got to wipe this round out of my mind.”
The performance was stunning stuff from a Hall of Fame player who had been so excited about his pairing with Woods. Two days early, Mickelson had gushed that Woods tended to bring out the best in him, and the statistics supported his enthusiasm. Since the end of 2006, Mickelson had been 8-3-1 head-to-head against Woods overall and 5-0 in final rounds.
After nine holes Thursday, though, you half-wondered if Woods was going to turn to Mickelson and ask, “How do you like this pairing now?”
Mickelson hit but seven fairways and, like Watson, eight greens in regulation. That was good only by the standards of Bubba Golf, which produced only five fairways hit. Watson kept pulling out his pink driver and kept playing out of high green grass. These are not the closely cropped confines of Augusta National.
“The course beat me up,” Watson said accurately.
Woods, on the other hand, got the best of Olympic, a rough-and-tumble slanted layout built on the east side of a gigantic sand dune. He flighted his ball up and down and shaped shots left and right. He was in command throughout, usually quickly picking up his wooden peg after teeing off.
“That was the old Tiger,” Watson praised. “He hit every shot shape he tried to hit.”
Woods is in prime position largely because he made two of his three birdies on Olympic’s toughest stretch, Nos. 1-6. He played those holes in 1 under, far better than the field average, and he did so despite pulling a 4-foot putt that hit the left lip hard after a brilliant approach on No. 4.
Twice a winner this season after not collecting a PGA Tour trophy for 2 1/2 years, Woods said he hit all those irons off par 4s because some tees were up and balls were running on the firm fairways. His intent was to find wider landing areas. It was a wise game-day adjustment he made after having practiced in softer conditions.
“This is the way I know I can hit the ball and have been hitting the ball,” said Woods, who made the recent Memorial his 73rd Tour victory.
In other words, his confidence is high. And when Woods’ esteem rises, the confidence of other players has been known to decrease. No one is handing him a trophy. But then people can’t take their eyes off him, either.