When Tiger Woods signed for his card only three players were in red numbers. He was one of them. Woods went to his lunch tied second in the clubhouse on one under par after a disciplined 69, three behind a first day bolter from Tucson by the name of Michael Thompson. Who he? asked San Francisco.
Olympic Club played US Open hard and then some. Masters champion Bubba Watson finished eight over. The final member of the fantasy three-ball, Phil Mickelson, closed on six over. Not at all what the massed ranks ordered when the group made its showpiece entrance on the ninth tee at 7.30 in the morning.
Things did not get any easier in the afternoon. The British headliners, Luke Donald, Rory McIlroy and Lee Westwood, the world's top three no less, were a combined 10 over par through the treacherous opening six holes. A birdie at the seventh to take Westwood back to plus three was like a shot of anaesthetic. No pain relief at the short par four for Donald at four over or McIlroy at three over.
However, Portrush ace Graeme McDowell, crowned US Open champion at Pebble Beach two years ago, matched his best opening round at this championship with a one-under par 69 to finish tied for second.
Never mind, the American audience got what it most desired; Woods punching away at the top of the order. There is no silhouette in golf quite like that of his. The musculature of the light heavyweight bulging through his grey sweater conveyed his readiness for the fight. Mickelson and Watson opted for funereal black, appropriately enough as it turned out.
Mickelson, the first to draw, hooked his tee shot so far right it was never seen again. Watson sliced his left. Woods, in contrast, arrowed a beauty straight down the pipe. To augment the grandeur of the moment, Woods walked down the fairway alone, 30 metres behind his partners with one hand casually stuffed in his pocket while he ate a sandwich for breakfast.
After a fruitless search that took in most of the flora to the right of the fairway, Mickelson was on his way back to the tee for another go. Woods was 25 feet from the pin before Mickelson had reached the tee box. But what a response from him, taking three more to escape with a bogey. Woods will never hit a better drive than he blasted at the next. Watson and Mickelson stood back from the challenge, electing to hit three-woods. Neither found the fairway.
Bogeys at each of his opening three holes was a fair commentary on the erratic standards being set by Mickelson. The text-book start from Woods earned no reward, and his first error at the 14th, where he went through the green with his approach, was punished with a bogey. Woods is a big boy. He would cope.
Spare a thought for Andy Zhang, the 14-year-old curiosity playing a game way beyond his years. The charm of participation did not survive the first hole. The San Andreas Fault runs beneath the opening two holes at Olympic Club. One day the consequences of that will rip an ugly stripe down the middle of both, much like Zhang yesterday. His opening tee shot missed left, his approach hooked wildly. A triple bogey was the result.
He followed that with a double at the second. Bogeys at the next three holes came as light relief. Remarkably he gathered himself thereafter and a birdie at the last allowed him to break 80. He deserved that. It was not all hell for teenagers. Beau Hossler, a 17-year-old amateur from Orange County, went round in level par. Astonishing.
Woods finally made inroads with a birdie at the par-five 17th to reach the turn level. Successive birdies at the fourth and fifth, the latter a 40-footer breaking from the left, made light of the terrors of this stretch. The thumb screw that is the opening six holes got one back at the next, inducing only his second dropped shot of the round.
"I felt like I had control of my game all day and stuck to my game plan," Woods said. "I was excited to be able to do that. If you are off your game on this course you are going to struggle. You have to really grind. I hit the ball well today and still found it hard to get it close."