Woods aside, 2nd round at Olympic has intrigue

Tiger Woods hits a shot on the 17th hole during the first round of the U.S. Open Championship golf tournament Thursday, June 14, 2012, at The Olympic Club in San Francisco.

Tiger Woods hits a shot on the 17th hole during the first round of the U.S. Open Championship golf tournament Thursday, June 14, 2012, at The Olympic Club in San Francisco.

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Looking ahead to Friday’s second round of the U.S. Open, is there anything other than Tiger Woods to talk about? In a word, yes.

Of course Woods is the primary focus because he’s Tiger Woods and everyone wants to see Woods continue on his quest to catch Jack Nicklaus in major victories. But what about Michael Thompson? He had seven birdies on a golf course that played to a stroke average of 74.923 – that’s nearly five shots above par – and was almost nine shots better than the stroke average. Is Thompson a flash in the proverbial U.S. Open pan? That still is up for debate, but the kid had game for 18 holes on Thursday. It seems the real question is how he follows that performance.

Also in a tie for second (with Woods) are David Toms, Nick Watney, Justin Rose and Graeme McDowell. One has to wonder which of these four will step up and stay within reach of the leaders. Or perhaps take the lead himself?

Toms has played well this year – at times, anyway – and the golf course set-up on Thursday favored his straight, controlled tee-to-green game.

Toms hit 57 percent of fairways, but only fifty percent of the greens in regulation. It seems Toms is living on borrowed time at Olympic Club and would have to hit the ball better to get closer to Thompson.

Watney needed a double-eagle on the 17th hole to move into contention. What’s surprising is that Watney has not played that well of late, and so far this year has an alarming trend of playing well in Round 1 before losing ground each day and eventually finishing well off the pace.

Keep this in mind: Watney is ranked 37th in first-round scoring average, 83rd in the second round, 126th in the third round and 167th in the final round. The contrast is starker when you see that Watney’s first-round scoring average is 70.54 and his final-round scoring average is 73.09.

“I haven’t played nearly as well as I would like,” Watney said of his year. “I’ve learned a lot of patience so far. So I feel like my game is really headed in a good direction. Obviously this week and the British Open in a couple weeks, a lot of big events left.”

Justin Rose is clearly not a surprise player in this bunch, but it would be a bit of a shock if he held on since he hasn’t had much success at the U.S. Open in recent years. He has missed the cut in every one since 2008.

Rose finished T-10 in 2007, the same year he finished T-5 at the Masters and T-12 at both the British Open and PGA Championships.

With a T-8 at Augusta earlier this year – courtesy of a final-round 68 – maybe Rose is ready to make his mark at the U.S. Open.

“It’s just a good start, not getting too wrapped up with that,” Rose said somewhat matter-of-factly about his mental approach after the first round. “I think this golf tournament, more than any other, you just have to stay in the moment, you can’t get ahead of yourself for one second out there. “

As for McDowell, it’s been difficult to regain the form he took into the 2010 U.S. Open at Pebble Beach. A birdie-birdie finish catapulted McDowell into contention on Thursday and if he can warm up his putter a bit, Olympic has the feel of a venue on which McDowell can make some noise. Still, that all depends on whether the flat-stick cooperates.

“Not very happy the way generally I played today,” McDowell said after his first round. “I hit it in a lot of fairways, and I hit it on a lot of greens and controlled things pretty well.”

The leaders are one collective storyline, but with 156 players in the field, there are a lot of other things to consider.

Is Branden Grace really that good? He won three times on the European Tour this year and had it to 3-under at one point on Thursday morning before dropping shots on the back nine and finishing at 1 over, in a tie for 15th.

Michael Allen, at 53, is a member of the Champions Tour, but also a member of Olympic having grown up in the area. He admitted that he has played the course maybe 2,000 times, but 1,999 of those were different than on Thursday, when the course featured the most competitive and penal conditions he ever has experienced.

Can Allen hang on to not only make the cut, but contend?

“Tom Watson almost won the British Open at 60,” Allen said. “That’s the great thing about this game. We do have a chance, if you take care of yourself ‑‑ and I work on my game hard and I love what I do, so I think out here I have a chance to be somewhat competitive, I hope.”

As the sun rises over Olympic Club on Friday, many players will have their work cut out for them. Two-time U.S. Open champion Ernie Els, at 5 over, is just outside the cutline along with last week’s winner Dustin Johnson.

Phil Mickelson, amateur Patrick Cantlay, Steve Stricker and U.S. Open winners Geoff Ogilvy and Lucas Glover all sit at 6 over and need to play much better on Friday to make the weekend.

“I’ve got a tough challenge just to get to the weekend tomorrow, unfortunately,” Mickelson said. “But I think that we don’t get to see or have the opportunity to test ourselves under such a difficult condition so I’ll go out tomorrow and see if I can shoot something under par.”

Further down the list are Rory McIlroy and Louis Oosthuizen at 7 over, Masters champion Bubba Watson at 8 over and World No. 1 Luke Donald at 9-over par.

It was a stunned McIlroy that was unwilling to speak to the mass media after this round that was the most shocking. Now a defending champion after what seemed an effortless romp around Congressional last year, the young Ulsterman has officially lost his game after Thursday’s 77.

“Rory McIlroy’s a pretty good player though, so if anybody can come back from it, he can,” McIlroy’s friend McDowell said. “But this golf course doesn’t really offer up many 64s.”

It’s a very valid point, which makes Friday that much more intriguing.

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