What? — you don’t believe that I thought Phil Mickelson would shoot over-par (I guestimated 73–75) and beloved Masters champ Bubba Watson would post a 78 (I predicted 80), and just like everyone else, I figured Tiger would start strong.
Woods wasn’t perfect, but this is not just the U.S. Open, it’s the U.S. Open at Olympic Club. It’s hard. It’s challenging. It’s penalizing. He knows this and anyone who doesn’t isn’t going to play well. You can’t expect to shoot 25-under and jump on the birdie train. You have to settle with boring pars, limit your mistakes and stay patient. The U.S. Open is about survival of the fittest more than any other major championship and the last man standing is the guy hoisting trophy on Sunday.
Tiger shot a one-under 69, which under the conditions and setup is considered closer to a 65. After the first round, the 14-time major champion is tied for second, along with Graeme McDowell, Nick Watney, David Toms and Justin Rose, all of whom are chasing 18-hole leader Michael Thompson, who fired an impressive four-under 66.
I don’t think anyone is surprised to see Tiger near the top of the leaderboard. I certainly wasn’t. I haven’t seen him hit the ball this well since…ever — okay, since I’ve been covering golf post-scandal. He took it up another notch at the Memorial. Two shots out of the lead with four holes to play, he switched into Vintage Tiger-mode and birdied three of the last four holes to pick up his 5th title at Jack’s tournament.
Woods had to change his game plan and adjust accordingly to the course conditions that had changed over night. He said the fairways and greens were much firmer and faster than they were on Wednesday, so he had to throttle back off the tee. He hit more 3-woods and drivers during the practice rounds because of the softer, more receptive conditions, but on Thursday he pulled driver out three times and stuck with the 3-wood and long irons — even a 7-iron on one hole — laying back and making the smart play (instead of trying to play hero).
“Some holes set up well for a driver and 3-wood,” said Tiger. “Other holes set up for irons. That’s the thing. In the practice rounds I hit more woods off the tees because the ball wasn’t chasing as much. Today it was quicker and the tees were somewhat up from where we played our practice rounds. Consequently that’s 20 yards. 20 yards is a lot. And all of a sudden we’re in the steeper part of slopes or now we’re through doglegs. I had to make the adjustment.”
For example, on the challenging 500-yard par-4 No. 5 — one of the most difficult to keep in the fairway off the tee — it’s tough to hit a 3-wood. The 5th hole is a dogleg right with the fairway sloping right-to-left and the wind coming from the right, which makes it nearly impossible to control. Here’s where it’s “easier” for players who move the ball left-to-right to keep it in the fairway. Woods was left with a long iron into the right-to-left sloped green, which wasn’t that receptive. However, he managed to find the putting surface and dropped a 40-footer for birdie.
“That was a fluke,” said Tiger in his post-round presser. “That putt was off the green.”
In other words, he caught a good break.
The first six holes are arguably the most demanding six-hole stretch in golf. If you walk off the sixth green and played those holes anywhere near even par, you’re in good shape. Not that it gets so much easier.
“As far as the golf course, it’s just demanding,” said Woods. “It does wear on you because there’s no let up.”
No, there’s not. That’s the U.S. Open’s signature. Every shot, every chip, every putt commands 100% focus and it’s exhausting. If you let silly mistakes frustrate you, you’ll be packing you bags early and headed home on Friday. Most important, you can’t let the golf course get the better of you and yield to the challenge. It’s hard. Everyone knows that and everyone has to play it, so why complain and concede before the tournament starts? I’m not sure. From my experience, players who embrace the taxing test that makes the Series 7 exams almost look like a breeze have a much higher percentage of sticking around for the weekend. Those who don’t? Well, it’s over before it started.
That’s why I expected Mickelson to be a toss-up — even though some argued he was “so excited” and revved up to play — I guess they missed his press conference, where he called the first six holes “overrated” and said he thought “No. 16 is a bad hole.”
Phil didn’t exactly get off to the most ideal start, either (the threesome started on No. 9). His opening drive stayed up in a cypress tree. He was forced to take the lonely walk back up the hill and re-tee. Miraculously, he posted a bogey despite the lost ball.
Well, it just wasn’t his day and he couldn’t play aggressive even though he wanted to, so instead he was tentative, and then aggressive at the wrong times if that makes any sense. He shot six-over 76.
Maybe I’m the only one who sensed it, but he didn’t have that same excitement and energy going into the week. At his press conference, he used adjectives like “fantastic” and “fabulous.” He wasn’t necessarily referring to the golf course and the setup, though. He was talking about playing with Tiger and Bubba. When he discussed the course, he sounded tentative if you listened carefully and picked up on subtleties, like his tone of voice and choice of words. He seemed unsure what to make of it. It played “soft” on Tuesday and Phil said if it stayed that way, “six, eight-under par may win.”
At the end of the presser, I couldn’t tell if he loved it or hated it, but it sure sounded like he was trying to talk himself into liking it. Then when he said, “I just think 16 is a bad hole,” before he walked out of the building, I thought to myself, alright, he’s done.
“We don’t get a chance to play under these conditions very often, so tomorrow I’m going to try to see if I can just shoot around under par. That will be a good challenge for me. I got to kind of wipe this round out. I can’t really think about the lead or anything I just got to make the cut right now and to do that I got to shoot something under par.”
However, Mickelson will pull it together and shoot a score low enough to make the cut. At least I would expect that.
As for Bubba, same deal. I expected an 80 out of him because in his presser, he said “an 80 was lurking.” Well, that’s all I needed to hear. He shot two better, 78. He’s already checked out. I wouldn’t be surprised if he changed his plane tickets already.
What you need to have (usually) to win a U.S. Open: patience.
As we know, that’s not one of Bubba’s strengths. Then again, I didn’t think he’d have the focus to win the Masters, so nothing would shock me. But this isn’t the Masters where you can get away with an errant drive or recover from a mistake here and there. This is the U.S. Open. Not Bubba Golf.
Bubba, who said he was going to hit a lot of drivers instead of pulling back like most players, tried that strategy on No. 6 and posted a 6 on Thursday.
“If I birdie it (Friday), I love it, because at least I’ll be here tomorrow.”
In other words, “I’m missing the cut.”
Credit him for his honesty, but his defeatist attitude was bizarre. I can’t explain it. It wasn’t so much candor. It was more like him just saying I’m not playing well and I don’t want to try harder, so see you later.
“(The golf course) is a lot better than I am,” said Watson to reporters after the round. “That golf course is too tough for me…Tiger Woods is always going to shoot low. Other guys will play good and Tiger is going to play good.”
He said Tiger was “the old Tiger,” referencing his swing and game.
Watson also set himself up for “failure,” by refusing to hold back and hit fairway woods and irons. He had decided to take driver to cut corners by hitting it over the trees, so that he would have shorter irons into the greens. That might work at the Masters and any other PGA Tour stop, but it’s not easy to get away with at the U.S. Open at Olympic.
Asked how this bombing drivers strategy worked, Bubba said, “I shot eight-over. So not very good.”
Well, how does the rough play from with short irons? Is it manageable?
“I shot eight-over, so not very good,” snapped Watson. “You could answer these yourself.”
The Big Three are teeing off in the afternoon on Friday and if the conditions are the same as they were on Thursday, then Olympic will play tougher than it did in the morning for Phil and Bubba, who seems to have lost interest in grinding for a low-ish number.
Expectations for Friday? I just looked into my crystal ball and it’s telling me Tiger will shoot around par or a few under and Phil will post close to whatever he needs to make it to the weekend. And we’ll see Bubba next week at the Travelers Championship, where he won his first PGA Tour victory in 2010. Remember, don’t get cute — the winning total score is going to be around two-over, after all.
(Getty Images/Harry How)