For Colin Montgomerie, it was a surprisingly happy return.
Playing for the first time since his father died, Woods ended a nine-week layoff with bogeys on his first three holes that sent him to his highest start ever in the U.S. Open. He had to play the final six holes 1 under par to escape with a 6-over 76, leaving him seven shots behind Montgomerie in the toughest first round of this major in 20 years.
Woods looked somber at times, although that was more likely a product of Winged Foot that memories of his father.
Scorecard: Tiger already finished with Rd. 2
Everyone was looking for me to be more emotional, he said. But Im trying to put the ball in the hole and win the championship.
Masters champion Phil Mickelson got off to a solid start in his bid for a third straight major, making a pair of 30-foot birdie putts and a bunch of short ones for par that proved equally important. He wound up at even-par 70, along with Jim Furyk, David Howell, Miguel Angel Jimenez and Steve Stricker.
Howell managed to make six birdies and was 4 under par with four holes to play. But he started missing fairways, which inevitably left him testy putts for par, and dropped four shots down the stretch, three-putting for double bogey on the 18th.
Once I calm down a bit, its still level par and its a good round of golf, Howell said. But right now Im frustrated, and Im fed up.
Mickelson didnt even bother trying to explain the degree of difficulty at Winged Foot, where 22 players shot in the 80s. The average score was pushing 80, the highest in the first round of a U.S. Open since Shinnecock Hills in 1986.
Youve had to go play it to grasp it, Lefty said. Its the toughest test we have all year.
It surely was a test of patience, including for Montgomerie.
He was 2 over after his first three holes, then holed a 10-foot par putt on the par-5 fifth that turned his fortunes. He started finding the short grass and kept his ball below the hole, and finished atop the leaderboard in the U.S. Open for the first time since 1997 at Congressional. Still, the 42-year-old Scot kept it in perspective.
My God, weve only walked seven miles, Montgomerie said. Theres a long way to go.
It felt like a marathon, players plodding along as they looked for relief from a course that demanded accuracy off the tee, precision to the greens and no time to breathe easy until the ball was in the hole.
Vijay Singh, coming off his first victory of the season last week at Westchester, had a steady round of 71 to join former Masters champion Mike Weir, John Cook and Fred Funk, who celebrated his 50th birthday on Wednesday.
Mickelson was wild at the start of his round in the morning, under cool, overcast skies. He missed six consecutive greens, but left himself in decent shape to save par and did that five straight times. Then came a 30-foot birdie on his ninth hole, No. 18, which showed how much his preparation paid off.
He started the ball well to the right, and watched the severe slope guide it back toward the hole until it disappeared, setting off a raucous cheer from the New York fans who again made the Californian feel at home.
I had hit that putt a bunch in practice, and the first couple times I stroked it, I missed it 2 feet left or low and 3 or 4 feet short, Mickelson said. I ended up playing about 8 or 10 feet of break and it swung right in there.
That was one of the few thrills on this day at Winged Foot.
Ernie Els saved a pedestrian round of 4-over by holing out from the ninth fairway for eagle and a 74. Two-time U.S. Open champion Retief Goosen didnt fare as well, failing to make a single birdie in his round of 77.
It was a stern test, but there were few complaints that it was unfair.
Furyk was so close to the lip of a bunker on No. 3 that he used his putter to get out to the middle of the sand, and he was all too glad to make bogey. The 03 U.S. Open champion is playing well this year and has been mentioned as one of the favorites.
It looks good, suits my eye, he said of Winged Foot. But thats a small part of the battle. The other part is hitting the shots and executing, which is difficult to do out here.
Par had not been so hard to beat in the first round since 86 at Shinnecock. No one did it then.
You just try to play for par here, whether its Thursday or Sunday, Mickelson said. Even is a good score.
He last was seen inside the ropes on Sunday at the Masters, where a balky putter kept him from making a charge, and he had to settle for a tie for third. More than two months later, not much changed.
Woods hit only three fairways but was hurt more by missing par putts of 8 feet, 7 feet and 6 feet on his opening holes. He said the greens were slower than he expected for a U.S. Open and he failed to adjust.
The first three holes ... I cost myself three shots, Woods said. Just got off to a bad start. With the wind blowing as hard as it was, it was going to be hard to make up shots. And I didnt. I lost ground.
Woods hit one tee shot so far to the right at No. 9 that he chose to play a sweeping hook with a 9-iron from 195 yards around the trees, over a corporate tent and into the grandstand to the right of the greens, which allowed him a free drop. Everything worked perfectly until he flew his chip over the green, flubbed the next one and had to make a 6-footer to save bogey.
The biggest damage came at the 640-yard 12th, when his approach went into a bunker and he flew that over the green, making double bogey. But he was solid the rest of the way, and while history is hardly on his side, he wasnt ruling himself out quite yet.
Woods has won only one of his 10 majors when he shoots over par in the first round, opening with a 74 at the Masters last year.
Ive just got to plod along; shoot under par the next two days, Ill be right there, he said.
Considering there was only one round under par Thursday, that might be a tall order. Woods was told that only Ben Hogan in 1951 at Oakland Hills and Jack Fleck in 1955 at Olympic Club had started with a 76 and gone on to win the Open. That brought a rare smile.
Its been done before, hasnt it? he said.
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