June 14, 2012

Woods logs 1-under 69 in strong start to Open

SAN FRANCISCO — For the first time since 2002, Tiger Woods started the U.S. Open with a round in the 60s. He posted a 1-under-par 69 Thursday at the Olympic Club and was three shots behind the leader, Michael Thompson.

A three-time winner of the event, the 36-year-old Woods was solid and patient throughout his round, which included three birdies and two bogeys. Tiger hit 11 of 18 greens and 10 of 14 fairways in regulation and used 29 putts.

He missed one short birdie putt and failed to get up and down twice from bunkers, but otherwise looked in complete control of his game.

“I’m very pleased,” Woods said. “I know I can hit the ball this way, and I have been hitting the golf ball this way. And I was able to put it together in a major championship.”

Woods said he and caddie Joe LaCava made many on-the-spot adjustments due to the firmness of the fairways and greens, changing winds and the unexpected use of several forward tees.

“I’m really excited about how I was able to execute my game plan,” said Woods. “The golf course was really quick. I was very surprised how much it changed overnight.”

Woods hit only three drivers — on Nos. 9, 10 and 16. The rest of the day, he hit mostly irons off the tee to play for position and set up good angles to the pins.

“It brings your mind into play, and I like that,” he said. “It’s just so demanding. It does wear on you. There’s no letup or breather hole.”

Tiger drew an early start on the ninth tee with Phil Mickelson and Bubba Watson. Both sides of the fairway were lined three or four rows deep from tee to green by spectators, which included Woods’ mom, Kultida.

Conditions were cloudy, and temperatures were in the low 50s initially but warmed up as the round progressed. Tiger, dressed in gray slacks and sweater, wore white shoes and a white hat in pursuit of his fourth U.S. Open title.

Woods nailed a driver down the center of the fairway at No. 9, the ball traveling 320 yards. Although he was left with a short approach shot, Tiger didn’t challenge the back pin placement and came up 35 feet short of the hole. He almost made the uphill putt, two-putting for a par.

With blue sky breaking through the clouds, Tiger crushed another perfect drive at the 420-yard, par-4 10th. Woods hit a nice approach from about 100 yards to the back pin, but the ball wouldn’t hold, carrying into the back fringe. He easily two-putted for a par.

“I had just a little flip 60 in there,” Woods said. “It landed 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.”

At the 430-yard, par-4 11th, Woods split the fairway with a 2-iron, then hit a nice approach shot to the back-right pin, the ball finishing 18 feet left of the hole. The birdie putt broke more than Tiger thought it would, and he settled for a par.

Looking very comfortable with his swing, Woods piped another good drive down the fairway at the par-4 12th. Again, he didn’t attack the front pin — playing it safely, 35 feet beyond the cup — and he two-putted for a par.

At the par-3 13th, Tiger hit a nice tee shot that wound up pin-high, 20 feet right of the hole. Once again, he made a stress-free par.

Woods hit an iron off the tee at the 419-yard, par-4 14th, a dogleg left, and left himself in perfect position to attack the front-left pin. His second shot carried too far and flew into deep rough behind the green, close to a bleacher. Tiger received a free drop but was still left with a tough downhill chip from thick grass. His third shot came up nine feet short of the hole, and he two-putted for a bogey.

Tiger two-putted the 154-yard, par-3 15th hole from 25 feet above the hole, then went to the 670-yard, par-5 16th, the longest hole in U.S. Open history. After finding the fairway, he punched a long iron within 130 yards of the green, then hit his third shot 30 feet past the hole and two-putted for a par.

At the 505-yard, par-5 17th, played as a par-4 in four previous U.S. Opens at Olympic, Woods hit a low 3-wood that just trickled into the first cut of the right rough. From there, Tiger punched a mid-iron onto the front of the green and was left with a 50-foot uphill eagle putt. He lagged his eagle try three feet left of the hole and converted for his first birdie of the tournament.

Woods hit a mid-iron in the fairway at the short, par-4 18th and was left with a pitching wedge to the green. His second shot narrowly cleared a front bunker and kicked onto the front of the putting surface, leaving a lengthy uphill birdie putt. Tiger came up three feet short and polished off the par putt to make the turn in even par.

Moving to the front nine, Woods hit a good drive and flagged his second shot on the par-4 first hole, a par-5 for members. The ball refused to hold and crept over the back of the green, Tiger two-putting for par.

At the tough, uphill, par-4 second hole, Woods hit a great approach shot four feet below the hole but couldn’t capitalize, the ball lipping out on the left side of the cup. The 245-yard, downhill, par-3 third hole features a slender green that slopes from front to back and is not easy to hit. Tiger came up just short with his tee shot, then hit a nice flop shot five feet past the cup and made a clutch par-saving putt.

“Hit a really nice shot at three and got a horrible bounce,” he said. “Ended up in just a tough spot.”

The positive momentum carried over to the par-4 fourth hole, where Woods’ iron off the tee trickled into the first cut of the right rough. Tiger punched a beautiful, blind approach shot to the uphill green, and the ball stopped eight feet right of the hole. The right-to-left birdie putt was tricky, but Woods poured it into the middle of the cup.

“I was just trying to keep that ball short; if it runs up, fine, if it doesn’t, I’ve got an easy uphill putt,” he said of his second shot. “And it chased up there past the hole.”

At the demanding par-4 fifth, Woods stuck to his game plan and found the fairway with a long iron, but left a long approach. His second shot finished about 40 feet left of the hole, leaving a slick, downhill, left-to-right birdie putt. Tiger gave it a bold run, and the ball disappeared into the cup for an unlikely birdie. The gallery roared in its approval.

“Five was a fluke,” Woods said. “That putt was off the green.”

Woods found the fairway with a long iron at the par-4 sixth, which features the only fairway bunker on the course. Again, Tiger was left with a long second shot, and this time he caught the left greenside bunker. Hitting from a good lie, he blasted about 15 feet past the cup and two-putted for a bogey.

Still, most officials and players consider the first six holes the toughest on the course. Mike Davis, the executive director of the USGA, suggested that anyone playing them in a combined 2-over par would gain serious ground on the field. Tiger toured them in 1-under.

Heading to the short, 256-yard, par-4 seventh, a hole Alvaro Quiros aced during a practice round on Wednesday, Woods and his group had a lengthy wait before teeing off. Tiger hit a 3-wood into the right greenside bunker and had another good lie. However, his second shot failed to hold the putting surface, rolling back off the front of the green, and he managed to get up and down for a par.

“I left myself in a perfect spot,” Woods said. “I should have aimed a yard right of the hole and that was my mistake.”

Woods went to his final hole of the day, the new 215-yard, par-3 eighth hole, which was jam-packed with fans on a hillside to the right of the green. Tiger’s tee shot just made it onto the putting surface, leaving a 50-foot uphill birdie putt. But he lagged nicely, the ball coming up about a foot short of the hole — dead-center — and he tapped in for a par.

“Yeah, that was the old Tiger,” said Watson, the current Masters champion. “That was beautiful to watch. That’s what we all come to see. It was awesome to see him strike the ball.”

Woods was especially pleased with his putting.

“I feel like I putted well today,” he said. “Most of my putts were lag putts. I was just trying to get the speed right and have kick-ins. I did that all day.”

Woods expects an even tougher test Friday. He begins second-round play at 4:18 p.m. ET on the first tee with Mickelson and Watson

“This golf course is so demanding,” Woods said. “And if you’re off you’re game just a little bit, you’re going to pay the price. It’s only going to get faster.”