SAN FRANCISCO – Under a cool blue-gray California sky on Thursday at the U.S. Open, Tiger Woods did the darndest thing. He played like Tiger Woods used to play at a major.
Gone were the pained expressions after mis-hits. Gone was the clank of a golf club banging off a tee box in a disgusted follow through. Gone was the muttered profanity.
In was a calm, clinical golfer. In was a player intent on a game plan, on calling the USGA's bluff and opting for fairway-pounding tee shots. In was a player thinking his way around the grueling Olympic Club setup, cagily eyeing each hole as if it were an adversary worthy of his best chess move.
Sixty-nine golf shots later, Tiger had his best first-round score at a U.S. Open since his 67 at the 2002 Bethpage Black U.S. Open. He won that U.S. Open.
The question: Who kidnapped the Tiger Woods who hasn't won a major in four calendar years, and replaced him with Tiger Woods?
Don't think the field didn't notice. Bubba Watson, whose first-round 78 smacked of surrender to Olympic's beastly demands, sure did.
"That was the old Tiger," he said, in gifting the media with Thursday's mission statement. "That was beautiful to watch."
So did Phil Mickelson, the other part of the underwhelming "Big Three" pairing. After Lefty's pained 76, and after speaking of his desire to simply make the weekend at this point, he was asked about Tiger's scorecard, which trumped him by seven strokes.
"He's playing really well," said Mickelson, the idea of his Pebble Beach romp over Woods in February somewhere far off in the distant memory banks. "He had solid control of his ball flight, and trajectory. It was impressive."
Yes, 54 holes of wind and canted fairways and small greens and firm conditions await. Yes, veteran, steady, U.S. Open-styled players such as David Toms and Matt Kuchar and Jim Furyk are off to fine starts, and have the air of players intent on contending all weekend. And, yes, Tiger 2.0, post-career humiliation, has yet to stitch four championship rounds at a major. But to ignore the many bright neon signs of goodness in Tiger's game Thursday is to ignore the story of the day.
Mostly, what emerged on Day 1 of America's national golf championship was what the old, 14-time major champion Tiger used to love most: a golf course's arduous requests meshing with his maniacally focused approach.
Olympic Club is one of those places where Tiger Woods, in another incarnation, would not thrive. He used to be Tiger the Bomber when he was younger, not able to control his driver, not able to win at tight, tree-lined tracks. Tiger is older now, wiser at 36. And after masterful performances like the irons-off-the-tee British Open at Liverpool in 2006, he is capable of meeting Olympic on its own terms.
If that means hitting only three drivers all day – on Nos. 9, 10 and 16 – so be it. He used iron off the tee repeatedly, and hit 10 of 14 fairways, 11 of 18 greens. If that means understanding that lag putting is the key because Olympic's firm greens deny tight approaches, so be it. He lag putted masterfully, and made only two bogeys. If that means mentally meeting Olympic's test, accepting the grind and not wishing for birdie holes or eagle holes, all the better. When Tiger Woods is healthy, mentally and physically, he'll take on anybody in the field when it comes to patience and work.
"There's no let up," Woods said of Olympic. "There's not one single hole where it's a breather … It's so demanding, you've got to really grind."
For Tiger, to "grind" is almost holy. If Hank Haney's book, "The Big Miss," reaffirmed anything, it was Tiger's passion for labor. When others wilt, or get tired, Tiger seeks a second wind. When others succumb to temptation and try to bomb driver – as Bubba did repeatedly Thursday – Tiger lays back, ever the tortoise to the field's hare. This player who once was defined by his length off the tee can play rope-a-dope golf, too.
Of course, none of this is applicable if Tiger's swing plane is off, if his ever-changing golf swing is one of its famous transition phases. That seemed to be the case at the Masters in April, en route to his tie-40th, or at Quail Hollow, where he missed the cut. And when Tiger told us repeatedly that he was hitting it "better" and was "close," our choices were to roll our eyes and wonder about his powers of delusion, or to believe him, and to wait for glory.
Most of us opted for the former. Others, as vindicated by a win in his last start at the Memorial, and a flop shot for the ages down the stretch, believed in the latter. Tiger's ball control Thursday at Olympic affirmed their positive thoughts.
"I know I can hit the ball this way, and I know I have been hitting the ball this way," Tiger said, for seemingly the umpteenth time, but this time with weight of evidence.
As he said it, a red "1" hung on the manual scoreboards next to the name "WOODS" all over Olympic's gorgeous landscape. It symbolized his 1-under par score, and for most of the day was one of only three red numbers after 18 holes, next to leader Michael Thompson and Toms. Every player in the field saw it, and knew that this major championship suddenly had its dominant theme.
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