SAN FRANCISCO – His shadow moved back over a U.S. Open.
Four years removed from his last major championship victory, Tiger Woods loomed large in Thursday’s start.
He moved onto the leaderboard with a 1-under-par 69 with a clinical dissection of a beastly test at The Olympic Club.
Woods moved into early contention in a tie for second place, three shots off the lead. It was his best start in a U.S. Open since he posted a 67 at Bethpage Black in 2002. He went on to win that championship.
There was something ominously familiar in Woods’ steadfast march across the rolling terrain here. That’s what Bubba Watson thought playing alongside.
“Yeah, that was the old Tiger,” Watson said. “That was beautiful to watch. That's what we all come to see.
'That's what we all want to watch and that was awesome to see him strike the ball like that.”
Phil Mickelson was left with little choice but to similarly bow to Woods’ prowess in the first round.
“Yeah, he struck it really well,” Mickelson said. “He's playing really well. He had really solid control of his flight, trajectory. It was impressive.”
How good was Woods’ start? If you saw the mighty struggle Watson and Mickelson endured trying to survive Olympic playing with Woods, you left with an even deeper appreciation of Woods’ shot-making.
Woods whipped up on Watson, the reigning Masters champ, by nine shots. He finished seven shots better than Mickelson.
Beautiful . . . Awesome . . . Impressive.
There’s only one reasonable response the rest of the field can have to those assessments by Woods’ playing partners.
If this were the “Old Tiger,” as Watson suggested, it might be more circa 2006 than 2000. It might be more the guy who surgically attacked Royal Liverpool winning the British Open six years ago than the guy who routed the field winning the U.S. Open at Pebble Beach a dozen years ago.
Woods played like a guy who wasn’t going to beat himself this week as he bids to win his 15th major, his first in four years.
You didn’t need a scorecard to know how well Woods was playing. His body language said it all. There were no thumped clubs, no faces scrunched in anger, no disgusted traffic cop signals warning spectators of wildly errant tee shots.
“I felt like I had control of my game all day and just stuck to my game plan,” Woods said.
Woods made a strong statement early with his opening tee shot, ramming a driver down the heart of the fairway. He slammed another driver down the middle with his second tee shot. He hit only four drivers all day, but he hit them well. He hit irons off seven tees. He avoided any huge misses and hit 10 of 14 fairways.
That was key to Woods’ ability to score. He hit double the number of fairways Watson hit. He hit three more fairways than Mickelson.
Woods said he adjusted his game plan slightly feeling how quickly the course had firmed up.
“In the practice rounds, I hit more woods off the tees, because the ball wasn't chasing as much,” Woods said.
“Today, it was quicker, and the tees were somewhat up from where we played our practice rounds.
'Consequently, that's 20 yards, and 20 yards is a lot.”
Woods did not make his first birdie until his ninth hole (No. 17), but he was honed in early to the U.S. Open formula that has won so many of these championships.
Fairways and greens, fairways and greens, fairways and greens.
“He hit every shot shape he was trying to hit,” Watson said. “I didn't see any bad swings. I didn't see any bad shot really. He hit every shot, shaped it the way he wanted to shape it.”
All week long, players have talked about the brutal stretch of six holes at the start. Woods said a player who got through Nos. 1-6 in even par would lap the field.
Woods didn’t play those holes until after making the turn, and he was sufficiently warm to handle them. He made birdies at the fourth and fifth holes. He played the stretch in 1 under after a bogey at the sixth.
Every shot didn’t go where Woods was looking. He knocked his approach over the 14th green and couldn’t get up and down for par. He missed a 4-foot birdie chance at the second. He short-sided himself in the bunker at the sixth and made bogey.
“This golf course, it's so demanding,” Woods said. “And if you're off your game just a little bit, you're going to pay the price. Phil and Bubba were off just a little bit. This is one of those Opens where it's just really hard to make birdies. This is not like it was last year [at Congressional]. This is a tough one. You’ve really got to grind.”
Woods looks like he might be the ultimate grinder this week.