Shaun Micheel sunk several clutch putts on his way to a 2-under 69 at the U.S. Open Thursday, earning him a share of the lead alongside side Paul Casey and Brendon De Jonge.
Meanwhile, the big names misfired at Pebble Beach as the U.S. Open proved to be as tough as ever.
Tiger Woods and Phil Mickelson didn’t make a single birdie between them, the first time that’s ever happened with the world’s best two players in the same tournament. Some of the strongest rounds, and sometimes the best shots, didn’t hold up on a course that was unforgiving.
One thing seemed as clear as the blue sky over the Monterey Peninsula: that 12-under par by Woods a decade ago is safe. If one round was any indication, anything under par might be good enough to win this U.S. Open.
"I’m not thinking about what kind of score might win this golf tournament,” Ian Poulter said after a hard-earned 70. "I’m just happy to go out there and play as good as I possibly can. But I will tell you the golf course is difficult. There’s not going to be many good scores on it today. And I can’t see it getting easier.”
De Jonge, a 29-year-old from Zimbabwe playing in his first U.S. Open, holed out with a wedge for eagle on the scary par-5 14th and hit it stiff on the par-3 17th for his round of 69. Casey of England got away with average iron play by taking only 23 putts.
Micheel, an American with two top finishes on the PGA tour this year, took only 22 putts, the last one from 20 feet for birdie on the 18th hole.
Only nine players were under par, compared with 17 rounds under par after the first round at Pebble in 2000.
The biggest difference was Woods.
He hit every green in opening with eight pars – extending his streak to 34 holes without a bogey in a U.S. Open at Pebble Beach – but never gave himself many good looks at birdie. His day ended badly, with a three-putt bogey from the fringe on the 16th, missing an 8-foot birdie on the 17th and laying up in a bunker to take bogey on the 18th for a 3-over 74.
"I hit the ball well enough to shoot a good score,” Woods said. "These greens are just awful. They’re moving every which way.”
Woods never had that problem 10 years ago, making everything inside 8 feet. He is a different player now, playing this U.S. Open under far different circumstances with the turmoil in his personal life. And this golf course has rarely looked so tough in relatively calm conditions.
Mickelson, already with a record five runner-up finishes in this major, hit two balls in the ocean, took two shots to get out of one bunker and missed a half-dozen birdie putts inside 12 feet in his birdie-free round of 75.
It was his highest opening round in the U.S. Open since 1997, though he was not entirely discouraged.
"There’s no way under par is going to win here, I don’t believe,” Mickelson said. "I think over par will win. Because of that, I’m right there. But I need to play well. I need to putt well, score well. I’ve just got to get sharp on the greens.”
Mike Weir chipped in for a bonus birdie on the 16th to reach 3-under, only to bogey the final two holes and settle for a 70, leaving him in a group of international players that included Poulter of England, 18-year-old Ryo Ishikawa of Japan, K.J. Choi of South Korea, Alex Cejka of Germany and Rafael Cabrera-Bello of Argentina, who had Visa trouble even getting into the country for his first U.S. Open.
Dustin Johnson, the back-to-back winner of the Pebble Beach National Pro-Am in February when the turf is soggy and only two rounds are played at Pebble, was among those at even-par 71. His round was derailed by a four-putt double bogey on the 14th.
That was only one of several miscues:
• Aaron Baddeley thought he had an ace on the 17th when his shot caught the lip. He four-putted for a double bogey.
• John Rollins was tied for the lead at 2 under when he put his tee shot into the rough at the far end of the hourglass green. He shanked his chip toward the 18th tee, left his third shot in the gnarly rough and wound up with a triple bogey.
• Morgan Hoffmann of Oklahoma State was at even par, a remarkable performance for a college kid in his first U.S. Open. But he hit two balls into the ocean on the 18th – the first one on a ricochet off the tree in the middle of the fairway – and took a quadruple-bogey 9.
"My favorite hole on the golf course,” Hoffmann said. "I was looking forward to it all day.”
Lee Westwood, the No. 3 player in the world who has a second and two third-place ties in the last three majors, had a 74. He played with Woods and Ernie Els, who had a 73.
It was a round that put Woods’ 15-shot victory into perspective. Except for his record score of 12-under par, the best anyone else could do 10 years ago was 3-over.
At first glance, the course seemed benign, especially with only a freshening breeze that picks up along the coastal holes. But it looked frightening with a club in hand. The fairways were particularly fast, the greens so firm that balls would bounce as high as six feet in the air upon landing.
"It looks like it’s wide-open fairway, but in the teeing ground … you look right, look left, either way is very tough,” Choi said. "And you can’t stop in the bouncing, so you’re very scared on the tee shot.”
Micheel managed best on the greens, and he was helped by his own sense of perspective.
His mother, Donna, was diagnosed with cancer a year ago. Micheel, a surprise PGA champion at Oak Hill in 2003, had to cope with low testosterone that has slowed him in recent years and cost him his full PGA Tour card for this year.
He choked up during his TV interview when speaking of his mother in Memphis, Tenn. The cancer was diagnosed in her lung, and since has spread to her brain, liver and spine. He doesn’t not expect her to live beyond the summer, and she could not get out to the course last week in Memphis when Micheel tied for fourth.
"It’s nice because I’m playing for somebody else,” Micheel said. "It’s always been about me, me, me. What am I going to shoot? It doesn’t matter to me. I love my mom. What do you say?”
For everyone else, Pebble Beach — more specifically, the U.S. Open at Pebble Beach – is enough to get their attention.
Defending champion Lucas Glover bogeyed his first two holes and ground out a 73. Not so fortunate were more than a dozen players who failed to break 80, and a few former U.S. Open champions who barely did.
Geoff Ogilvy, the 2006 winner, played an eight-hole stretch in 8 over in the middle of his round and shot 79. Tom Watson, the 60-year-old who won at Pebble in 1982, still managed to show his famous gap-tooth smile despite a 78.
Three-time major champion Padraig Harrington rallied for a 73 while playing with Mickelson.
"Our scores say a lot about the U.S. Open,” Harrington said. "You get good golf courses like this … set up reasonable in a regular event, guys would shoot regular scores. But in this event, everybody gets a bit more tense.”