Tiger and Phil Battle on Day 1

By Rich LernerJune 12, 2008, 4:00 pm
2008 U.S. OpenSAN DIEGO -- In talking to fans, one told me that he left for the course before 5am local time and it still wasn't early enough to beat the traffic jam around Qualcomm Stadium. The bleachers started to fill at 5:30.
 
Im just going to try to stay alive, said one man when asked about his strategy as a spectator.
 
A thoroughly unscientific poll of 17 gallery members had 13 rooting for Tiger and 4 for Phil.
 
At 7:30 I headed to the putting green and bumped into Dave Pelz. On Phils decision to pull the driver out of his bag, he told me, Its an attempt to keep it in play. It gives him a little more margin for error. If the fairways play fast, he should be fine.
 
Dottie Pepper said with a smile, he goes from two drivers to no drivers.
 
Thomas Levet called Phils decision a strange one, but he has so much in reserve.
 
Rich Beem stopped to chat before his round and cracked, Its a Phil decision. But he plays a different game than the rest of us and hes been damn successful.
 
Back at the first tee, Phil arrived first at 8am, six minutes ahead of his tee time. He walked over to the starters podium and the crowd started yelling, speech, speech!
Phil smiled, leaned into the microphone and said, Good morning. It hadnt been turned on, but the crowd erupted in laughter.
 
Tiger arrived last and exchanged a perfunctory handshake with Phil. He broke into a big smile when he greeted Adam Scott.
 
The crowds were seven deep around the first. By 8:10 the threesome had played away, with Tiger forced into U.S. Open grind mode immediately.
 
The double at one was stunning, like Mick Jagger returning to Madison Square Garden with no voice.
 
By four, hed found his sea legs, the five iron from the fairway bunker setting up his first birdie in two months.
 
Phil struggled with his three-wood and the strategy appeared to have backfired. After he missed a short putt for par at five, he stood at the sixth tee leafing through his yardage book and preparing to hit three-wood off a 500 yard par four. For Phil, golf's always been as much science as art, his approach at times pragmatic, and at other times dramatic.
 
Tiger cut loose at last on a tee ball at six and looked to be settling in. Further down the fairway, two fans had found a spot in a luxury box---high atop a eucalyptus tree with views of the Pacific. This is not the week to be inside an air conditioned corporate suite.
 
Meanwhile, Tiger pulled his second into a greenside bunker and took an angry swipe. Naturally, he got up and down, the sublime short game buying him time, always, to sort things out with his full swing.
 
Phil gave up half a football field in distance to Tiger on the sixth hole, and with three straight bogies by seven murmurs inside the procession of 100 press members snaking along inside the ropes grew. Had he made a tactical blunder by eschewing the driver?
 
All along, there was very little interaction between Tiger and Phil, with Phil later saying that had it been a regular TOUR event there would have been more chatter. There were a couple occasions where Tiger walked and talked with Adam Scott, but none with Phil.
 
At the eighth, Adam Scott chipped in from just short of the hole. It was his hey-dont-forget-about-me moment. Tiger ran in about a 15 footer for birdie and suddenly all felt right in the world of Tiger, though its never really too grim in sunny San Diego, is it?
 
In fact, San Diego does sunshine like Google does info, offering a plethora of Pacific postcard views. But this day was about gritty, not pretty.
 
Tiger was twirling the driver by the ninth. He now had a full head of steam, and he was three clear of Phil.
 
From a psychological standpoint, the thought occurred that the distance gap off the tee underscored the current state of affairs, with Phil well behind Tiger. And at three over early, had the round continued to spiral Phil would have faced an uncomfortable session with a critical media as he tried to defend the strategy. It would not have been a pleasant way to start this most important U.S. Open.
 
At nine, Tiger birdied again. As he walked by The Scripps Institute, I thought that not even the geniuses inside that building could figure out how this guy does it. He hasnt played in weeks, doubles one and turns in one under.
 
Finally at 10, Phil made birdie and a huge weight seemed to have been lifted. On the other hand, I began to search for a second wind as the Venti Macchiatto I drank at 6 began to lose its grip on me.
 
In any event, we pressed on, caught up in the wave and enjoying the sunshine. I stopped to study the scoreboard, shocked that the first Hicks to hit the airwaves would be Justin and not Dan of NBC.
 
At the 12th, we got the full Phil with the near whiff and the full Tiger with the kind of miraculous par he always seems to make.
 
But at 14 the golf course bit back, as if to say, You may be Tiger Woods but this is a U.S. Open. Tiger doubled. Phil birdied for a three shot swing. Frustration set in for Tiger.
 
The battle with the golf course fully engaged, Tiger punched right back with a super intense fist pump par putt at 15.
 
I bounced along, swapping observations with golf writers. My producer, Kristi Chartrand, wondered if Phil was employing some gamesmanship by always standing at a spot on the green where Tiger could see him. I paid attention and the idea had merit, though its not a concept Phil or Tiger would ever address. It should be noted that after Tigers par save at 13 Phil walked by and nodded to Tiger as if to say, nice save.
 
The crowds only swelled as the day went on, 20 deep in some spots. People occasionally grumbled at cameramen. Hey, down in front was a familiar cry. For the most part the galleries were well mannered. They werent Bethpage boisterous.
 
Maybe the scenery has a mellowing influence. At one point with Tiger and Phil silhouetted against the ocean, I thought these are the still photographs of a coffee table book well leaf through in 30 years.
 
If one was coaxed by sun and surf or by fatigue into a bit of a trance theyd be snapped out of it in one breathless moment at 18. Tiger unfurled a 360 yard missile but immediately winced in pain. He walked to the back of the tee box with his head down and in obvious discomfort. How bad was it? Would he finish the tournament? Those were the immediate, albeit extreme, thoughts that raced through the mind.
 
He gingerly walked down the fairway. The seven iron second shot went off smoothly and now wed wait to hear from Tiger after the round. His three-putt was an uncharacteristic finish. But still it was a hard fought 72 and not all bad considering the start and the rust. Phil two putted for birdie, one of four on the back side. Hed be pleased with his even par effort after being three over after seven. Hed brought the crowd back behind his cause, and would head to Friday with momentum and the three-wood strategy in tact.
 
Tiger acknowledged that the knee was sore, that hed ice it and sit in the whirlpool, that he hadnt, as some thought, been wearing a brace.
 
In all, it was a good fight, even exhilarating at points. The principals will repair to their corners with a few scrapes and bruises. Its early in a 15 round heavyweight epic.
 
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