Tiger serves notice with smooth 69
Perhaps because Tiger Woods had just beaten him by nine strokes, Masters champion Bubba Watson could afford to appreciate the craftsmanship shown by his famous playing partner.
"That was the old Tiger," Watson said. "That was beautiful to watch. Awesome to see him strike the ball that good."
On a lovely morning by the Pacific when the sun mostly won its losing battle with the fog, the Tiger of old did indeed emerge.
Woods dissected fairways with tee shots, found a lot of putting surfaces and, even when he didn't, put himself in place to make par, which he knows only too well is king at US Opens.
The three-time US Open champion opened with a 1-under 69 on Thursday, on a day when the field was playing the beastly Olympic Club at nearly 5 over par.
When Woods finished, only Michael Thompson (66), who finished runner-up at the 2007 US Amateur held here and whose patented hard cut suits the left-to-right bias of the course, was ahead of him.
The statisticians were trumpeting the fact that in two of his three previous US Open victories — 2000 at Pebble Beach and 2002 at Bethpage Black — Woods also opened with a round in the 60s.
But it didn't require comparative statistics to know that, four years removed from his last major, Woods is once again a force with which to be reckoned. His demeanor told far more than any statistics could.
Despite having failed in the past 12 majors — the longest drought of his career — Woods wasn’t high-fiving anyone. In fact, he barely smiled.
"I’m hungry," he shrugged.
And maybe this is the clue that he's back — that he looks at a stellar opening round at a US Open as it once used to be for him: no big deal.
"Yeah, I’m pleased," he said. "I had a good game plan going in and I executed all the way through and ended up with a score under par. Which was nice."
Despite Woods' dramatic victory at Memorial two weeks ago, there were those who weren't convinced that he could translate that success to a major. After all, Woods had promised so much after winning Arnold Palmer's Bay Hill Invitational, only to deliver so little at the Masters.
But the difference between these two majors was startling, and immediate.
On Thursday he began his campaign with two striped drives; two of only three drivers Woods used on Thursday.
At Augusta National he started with two snipe hooks, setting the tone for what would become his worst finish ever there.
"I wasn't hitting the ball that well in practice rounds at Augusta, either," he said. "So what you saw the first day is basically how I was hitting it.
"Today was basically how I have been hitting it. I figured just keep doing the same things."
Watson, as is his wont, was a little more colorful in describing what he saw from Woods.
"He hit every shot shape he was trying to hit," he said. "I didn't see any bad swings."
Indeed, had it not been for a mediocre chip on the 14th and two poor bunker shots on his back nine holes, Woods easily could've gone deeper.
What he was happiest with, he said, was that he thought quickly on his feet, adjusting to the fact that Olympic played so much faster than it had in practice just a day before.
"You have to make the adjustment quickly. I hit just a sweet drive down 10 today, and I had just a little flip 60 (degree wedge) in there," he said. "And I landed it, what, 10 paces on and it rolled off the back.
"It's not too often you clip a 60-degree sand wedge like that and it goes 50 feet. So that's a pretty good indication that it's going to be a little bit different today."
Golfers usually aren't fans of courses that require factoring in the added dimension of bounce.
"It just goes to show that firm greens scare the life out of professional golfers," Padraig Harrington said after his round.
But such complexities serve only to engage Woods even more.
"I've always preferred the conditions to be difficult, where the ground is springy instead of soft," he said. "You can't just sit up there and say we've got 150 yards to the hole and we’re going to fly it 150 yards. This is different.
"It brings our mind into play and I like that."
Two players who didn't much like it on Thursday were Watson and Phil Mickelson, who formed the featured pairing alongside Woods. They were as bad — routinely spraying shots — as Woods was good.
Watson shot 78 and Mickelson, whose woes began on the first hole where he hooked his shot into the trees and never found his ball, finished with 76.
"It's a lot better than I am," Watson said of the course. "That golf course is too tough for me."
Mickelson couldn't fix the miss to the right, but neither did he have the speed of the greens.
"I've got a tough challenge just to get to the weekend, unfortunately," he said.
Woods resisted the urge to gloat, especially given the 64 that Mickelson threw at him at Pebble Beach earlier this year.
He focused, instead, on the next three days.