PEBBLE BEACH, Calif. – Maybe it was all about the putter in 2000.
Tiger Woods has long held that he played his best tee-to-green golf during his Tiger Slam season while winning the British Open at St. Andrews – an easy notion to dismiss given the magnitude of his run here.
You don't get to 12-under in U.S. Open conditions and obliterate a major championship field by 15 strokes by just knocking it around for four days and sinking a few putts. Yet Tiger maintains it was the putter that paved the way for that historic win.
Anyone who dismissed that belief before play on Thursday gets the message now.
Woods executed a near-perfect U.S. Open round tee to green to kick off his 2010 championship, yet walked off the 18th hole at Pebble Beach lamenting a 3-over round of 74.
"I three-putted twice and laid up in a bunker," Woods said, referring to his 5-iron second shot that landed in the sand and led to a bogey. "Those are mistakes you can't afford to make."
Woods made 21 birdies back in 2000, electrifying the galleries and generating enough positive energy to bring the waters of Stillwater Cove to a boil.
The crowds were spring-loaded again Thursday. Woods was greeted warmly on the first tee, and the overflowing gallery was ready to burst at the first sign of a Tiger charge.
They're still waiting.
Not that Thursday's round didn't have its share of signature shots.
He hit a brilliant fairway bunker shot on No. 2 to set up a birdie chance. His approach from well back in the fairway on No. 8 put him in position again. A one-handed follow through finished his second shot on No. 9, the ball improbably winding up pin high from the thick stuff. He three-putted.
Time after time, Woods used his irons to set up made-for-Tiger situations. Time and again, his putter let the air out of the moment.
By the time Woods reached the 17th tee, the gallery had yet to celebrate a single birdie. He stood at 2-over after bogeys on 9 and 16.
On Wednesday, Tom Watson called the tee shot on 17 the most critical shot of this championship. Long par-3 holes don't faze Open-caliber players, but the field isn't used to hitting a ball this distance – the hole played at 222 yards Thursday – into such a small target.
Then came Tiger, who hit the type of shot he usually uses to build momentum. He took an aggressive line and hit a laser just right of the pin. Not many players can hold the green from that distance, but Tiger left himself eight feet for birdie.
"It bounced about three feet in the air," Woods said. "The greens are just awful.
"It is what it is. All you can do is go out there and hit good putts and hopefully they kick in."
If the putting does kick in for Woods on Friday, the field could be in for an awakening.
The erratic player who sprayed the ball around Quail Hollow and Muirfield was nowhere to be found. Instead, there was a patient player who rarely needed his driver. Woods hit 10 of 14 fairways and tied for seventh in the field in greens in regulation.
As far as game plans go, it was a well-executed round.
"I felt like I played very consistent, very patient, and I hit a lot of shots how I wanted to hit them," Woods said. "And I placed the ball in the correct spots."
On Friday, play will begin with Woods trailing co-leaders Shaun Micheel, Paul Casey and Brendon de Jonge by five shots. Tournament co-favorite Phil Mickelson is one shot behind Tiger after opening with a 75.
"I just putted horrific," Mickelson said.
Must be going around.
If you buy into the 2000 champion's line of thinking – Woods was quick to remind those assembled outside the scoring trailer that he's won three of these – then conditions will be better for Friday's 11:06 a.m. ET tee time.
"I'll just be patient, there's a long way to go," Woods said. "Just keep plugging along and see where I come Sunday afternoon."