'Fun' in an Open? Thompson enjoys 1st-round 66

Michael Thompson during a practice round for the U.S. Open Championship golf tournament Thursday, June 14, 2012, at The Olympic Club in San Francisco.

Michael Thompson during a practice round for the U.S. Open Championship golf tournament Thursday, June 14, 2012, at The Olympic Club in San Francisco.

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SAN FRANCISCO – Michael Thompson turned to his caddie, Matt Bednarski, several times during Thursday’s first round of the U.S. Open just to say, “This is so awesome.” Yes, it’s easy to enjoy oneself when shooting 66, but there’s a feeling Thompson would’ve been happy even if his score had been 10 shots higher.

“I’ve been looking forward to hopefully playing in this event for over two years,” he said. There’s a good reason why. He was runner-up in the 2007 U.S. Amateur at Olympic Club. He's staying on San Francisco's famed Lombard Street with the same family that hosted him during that Amateur. This is Thompson’s first major as a professional. What more could the second-year PGA Tour player want?

“This is just a bonus in my career. I'm not guaranteed into all the majors,” said Thompson, who had a three-shot lead when he finished Thursday’s round. “And then to have it be on one of my most favorite golf courses in the world, even better.”

Thompson has been in San Francisco preparing for this event since last Friday, departing for California after speaking at his alma mater Alabama’s golf camp.

The extra preparation paid off, for now Thompson is atop the leaderboard, three shots ahead of Tiger Woods and David Toms. Thompson was 2 over par on Olympic Club’s difficult six-hole opening stretch, but made six birdies and zero bogeys over the next 12 holes.

“I like USGA events,” he said. “They’re fun.”

The three-letter F-word rarely is used to describe an Open, but Thompson has several attributes that make him well-suited for the game’s toughest test. “He’s a great putter,” said his college coach at Alabama, Jay Seawell. “The greens out there are perfect, so he’s going to have a field day out there.”

That would be an accurate assessment. He had just 22 putts Thursday. Thompson, an Eagle Scout, also has the proper mind-set to handle a U.S. Open’s challenges.

“I’ve never met someone with a mind like Michael’s,” Seawell said. “He sets goals, and he knows when there’s adversity, he just has to press on. He’s got a tough mind. He’s an optimist. Those are things you need if you’re going to play a U.S. Open.”

That explains why Thompson said, “The tougher the golf course, the better I play.”

Thompson already has faced adversity in his young career. He turned pro in 2008 as the world’s No. 1 amateur, but it wasn’t a linear or rapid ascent to the PGA Tour. As he was talking with agents in preparation for his pro career, one told him that he would have to hit the ball higher to compete on the PGA Tour.

“That one quote, it totally changed my whole outlook on the game of golf and how I was going to go about playing it,” he said. “I changed my whole swing.”

He had to spend the 2009 and 2010 seasons on the Hooters Tour as he worked on reclaiming his game, ridding himself of a snap hook and returning to his natural fade. He was the Hooters Tour’s Player of the Year in 2010 and earned his first PGA Tour card at that year’s Q-School. As a rookie in 2011, he was 98th on the money list, including two top-5 finishes.

Thompson finished 29th in his only previous U.S. Open finish, earning the low-amateur honor at the 2008 event at Torrey Pines. The low amateur generally is awarded his silver medal at the trophy ceremony. Because the winner hadn’t been decided – the historic playoff between Tiger Woods and Rocco Mediate was a day away – Thompson was awarded his prize in an understated affair on Torrey’s 18th green.

“It was me, my family, a couple friends and, like, six USGA officials out on the 18th green and nobody in the stands,” he said. Thompson doesn’t mind a lack of attention, though.

“Obviously my name's in the spotlight, but a lot of people don't know who I am,” Thompson said. “And I'm totally OK with that because I've always been a player that just kind of hangs around. I don't give up very easily, and I'm very proud of that. Give Tiger the spotlight. I don't care. I'm going to go out and play my game. If I go out and putt the way I did today, I'll be in contention.”

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