Tiger Woods starts fast as Phil Mickelson, Bubba Watson struggle in Round 1 at U.S. Open

P1-TigerWoods-Robert-BeckSAN FRANCISCO -- Tiger Woods got off to a strong start at the 2012 U.S. Open, posting a one-under 69 in his opening round Thursday morning at the Olympic Club to get near the top of the leaderboard.
His play at the difficult Olympic course -- which he attacked methodically with controlled drives, accurate irons and careful putting -- left Woods in excellent position in his quest to win his 15th major championship.
"I'm really excited how I was able to execute my game plan all day today," Woods said, "and pleased with a one-under-par round."
That game plan included keeping the ball in the fairway; Woods hit only three drivers all day, on the ninth, 10th and 16th holes. "It all depends on the hole," he said. "Some holes set up well for a driver and 3-wood. Other holes set up for irons." Related Photos: Round 1 at the U.S. Open Woods, who hasn't won a major since the 2008 U.S. Open at Torrey Pines, arrived at Olympic with a new confidence in his game and his swing, having won the Memorial Tournament two weeks ago to notch his 73rd PGA Tour win. That momentum carried over into Woods's round on Thursday.
"I know I can hit the ball this way and I know I have been hitting the golf ball this way," Woods said. "And I was able to put it together in a Major championship. I'm going to need it the next three days."
Playing in a "supergroup" with longtime rival Phil Mickelson and 2012 Masters champion Bubba Watson, Woods was the class of the threesome, with three birdies -- including a long breaking putt on the fourth hole -- and two bogeys. Meanwhile, his celebrated playing partners proved how difficult the punishing Olympic course can be.
Mickelson, who earlier in the week said he relished playing with Woods, shot a disappointing 76, while Watson shot an eight-over 78.
"This golf course, it's so demanding, and if you're off your game just a little bit, you're going to pay the price," Woods said. "Phil and Bubba were off just a little bit."
On a course with no out-of-bounds areas, Mickelson sent his first drive into a tree, where it stayed, forcing him back to the tee. His second drive was perfect and he managed to make bogey after sticking his approach and sinking an 8-foot putt. Mickelson couldn't stifle a smile walking off the green, but that bogey was one of Mickelson's only highlights. He finished with seven bogeys and just one birdie.
"I've got a tough challenge just to get to the weekend tomorrow, unfortunately," Mickelson said. "But I think that we don't get to see or have the opportunity to test ourselves under such a difficult condition so I'll go out tomorrow and see if I can shoot something under par." Related Photos: Phil's U.S. Open Heartbreaks Watson, who said the course "beat me up today," let his performance speak for itself. Asked how he played with short irons from the rough, Watson responded, "I shot 8 over, so not very good. You could answer these yourself."
His own poor showing increased Watson's appreciation of Woods's 1-under-par round, and Watson said doesn't have any doubt that Woods is "back."
"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."
For his part, Woods said he liked how the Olympic course forces players to think about every shot.
"I've always preferred the conditions to be difficult, where the ground is springy instead of soft," Woods said. "And I think it just brings in shot-making. You can't just sit up there and say we've got 150 yards to the hole and we're going to fly it. This is different. If you draw it, it springs further or if you cut it, it springs less, or you cut it into the slope. It brings our mind into play and I like that."
The star power of Woods, Mickelson and Watson gave the mellow San Francisco crowds an early boost this morning with their 7:33 a.m. tee time, and the cheers for Watson -- golf's newest folk hero -- were at least as loud as those cheers for Woods and Mickelson. The supergroup tees off again on Friday at 1:18 p.m. Pacific time, but this time there won't be any doubt about the star attraction.
Once again, all eyes will be on Tiger.
(Photo: Robert Beck / SI) Round 1 Photos | Tiger's U.S. Open Career | Phil's U.S. Open Career | Inside Pros' Bags

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by Kevin Cunningham