OAKMONT, Pa. (AP) — Tiger Woods flipped an iron toward his bag in disgust. As another tee shot sailed right, he grumbled “Tiger!” And when a putt that would be a gimme anywhere else rolled several feet past the hole, he stared at it, stunned.
So, Tiger, how did that round go for you?
“On this golf course, it’s fine, it’s right there,” he said.
Better than that. With a 1-over 71 Thursday, Woods was only three strokes off the lead at the U.S. Open. The rain that fell Wednesday afternoon didn’t make Oakmont Country Club any easier, and red numbers were as scarce as trees on the course.
Nick Dougherty was 2 under, with Angel Cabrera a stroke behind. Bubba Watson and Jose Maria Olazabal were even par, and there came Woods and a whole bunch of other guys.
“If you shoot even just 3, 4, 5 over par, you’re still in the tournament,” Woods said. “You know that you’re going to get some bad breaks and some good ones, and go along with it. If you make a mistake, accept the ramifications of it.”
Woods has won four of the last nine majors, and is a two-time U.S. Open champion. But he hasn’t won the Open since 2002, and last year he didn’t even make it to the weekend, missing the cut at a major for the first time as a professional.
Of course, his life was much different then.
Winged Foot was the first tournament he played after the death of his father, Earl, and it was clear neither his heart nor his mind were ready. He sprayed shots all over the course and couldn’t get putts to drop when he needed them. He looked lost, a jarring sight for everyone who’s come to appreciate his gifted game and steely determination.
Now, though, Woods is in a much happier place. He’s a few weeks from becoming a father for the first time, and he’s won three times already this season, best on the PGA Tour. He’s shown glimpses of the game that leaves everyone else playing for second, and he arrived at Oakmont as the favorite.
Nothing he did Thursday changed that, even if he wasn’t at the top of the leaderboard.
“It was conservative today. That’s how you normally play U.S. Opens,” he said. “You don’t play it aggressively.”
Not if you want to win.
The U.S. Golf Association prides itself on making the Open a “thorough test” of golf. All that really means is that it’s going to be four days of punishment. The fairways are narrow, the greens slick, and the thicker the rough, the better.
But Oakmont presents its own special test. The greens are particularly tricky, with putts going every which way. Normally, Woods said, players can put the ball below the hole and have a shot at making it. Do that at Oakmont, and the ball is off the green.
“You’re going to have cross-green putts, downhill, triple breakers,” Woods said. “It is what it is, and you’ve got to hang in there and hopefully putt well.”
Woods started strong. After a bogey from the fairway bunker on No. 1, he made an uphill 15-footer to get the stroke back on the second hole. He saved par by curling in a 12-footer on No. 3, then made an 18-footer for another birdie on the sixth hole.
Then he ran into trouble.
On the par-3 No. 8, which was playing 261 yards Thursday, he dumped his tee shot in a bunker off the left edge of the green. He blasted out to 4 feet, but his par putt skirted the right edge of the cup and skittered along the back side, refusing to drop.
His shot on the par-4 10th sounded bad off the tee Ã¢â‚¬” and it was. It landed in deep rough behind the bunker, and he did well to get back into the fairway, even if it was short of the green. He had a 10-footer for par, but it rolled about a foot long.
Two holes later, the tricky Oakmont greens really got him. He had only a 15-footer for par, but there was a speed bump-like hump between him and the cup. He missed it, forcing him to take a bogey on the 667-yard par-5 and drop to 2 over.
“There was some scrappy stuff in the middle,” said defending champion Geoff Ogilvy, who played with Woods. “But he rallied. He got the best out of his finish.”
He worked for every bit of it, too. He ran a birdie putt 8 feet long on the par-3 16th, then made the comebacker to save par. On No. 17, he made birdie with a tricky, 3-foot downhill putt Ã¢â‚¬” miss it and the ball would have run another 15 feet.
He closed with a par on 18.
“That was a nice way to end the round,” Woods said. “Basically, I could have lost three shots there, but I was able to keep it as is.”
And keep himself in contention.
“That’s what he does. He gets the best score of the day he can,” Ogilvy said. “Not his best, but he’s still in the tournament.”