SAN FRANCISCO — The scoreboard says Michael Thompson is winning the United States Open, but don’t believe it. The fierce Lake Course at Olympic Club already looks like the real winner here.
Move over, Oakmont. If this keeps up, you may soon have company at the top of the U.S. Open’s Fear and Loathing list. Red numbers are on the endangered species list this week. Only six players broke par Thursday, and only Michael Thompson was better than one under. His four-under 66 made him the traditional little-known, surprise first-round Open leader.
Let’s hope last year’s competitors enjoyed what passed for a birdie-fest by USGA standards at Congressional because they’re about to experience the exact opposite. It’s called a real U.S. Open, where the rough reminds you of the old Jethro Tull song, "Thick as a Brick," four straight pars count as a charge, and the only place to “go for it in two” is at the buffet in player dining.
Maybe the take-no-prisoners tone was set early. Shane Bertsch had the honor of striking the first shot of this Open, and it went way off-line, landing behind an ESPN broadcast tent. That was a quick, and symbolic, bogey.
Phil Mickelson was up shortly after, starting at the ninth hole at 7:33 a.m. local time with Tiger Woods and Bubba Watson. Looking like a man who’d just been zapped by a taser, Mickelson hooked his opening drive into the right trees. He couldn’t find it despite the huge gallery; it presumably got stuck in a tree. “Nobody ever saw it or heard it come down,” he lamented.
That led to an odd sight. Phil took a walk of shame back to the tee, hit a drive in the fairway and then became the answer to a trivia question: Who besides Casey Martin rode in a cart on Thursday? Phil. He got a lift from a cart-driving rules official, who scooted him back down the fairway to his ball. Don’t worry, it’s legal for pace-of-play reasons.
Mickelson stiffed his iron shot and made a five-footer to save bogey, then poured in a 12-footer to save bogey at the 10th hole, too. That’s right, Phil one-putted the first two holes and was two over par. He bogeyed the next hole, too. “I didn’t play well, obviously,” Mickelson said.
Olympic Club had something to do with that. His playmate, Woods, commented on how surprised he was that the course seemed to get so much firmer and faster since Wednesday’s practice round. “This course is 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.”
That translated to 76 for Phil and a thank-you-sir-may-I-have-another 78 for Bubba.
“This is one of those Opens where it’s just really hard to make birdies,” Woods said.
That sentence may be all you need to know about this Open and which players it favors. Woods, who played flawlessly tee-to-green in his recent victory at the Memorial, posted an uneventful 69, which tied David Toms for second after the morning round.
You remember Tiger in his prime — the harder the course, the better his chances. Especially at firm courses, where he doesn’t have to hit driver often. Once Tiger realized how firm and fast Olympic was playing, he hit driver on only three holes, the ninth, 10th and 16th.
By and large, Olympic delivered multiple humblings to the rest of the field. “It beat me up today,” Watson said. “It’s beating me by eight right now.”
Padraig Harrington, who shot a disappointing 74, said, “It just goes to show that firm greens scare the life out of professional golfers.”
They’re not likely to get much softer the rest of the week, barring a fog-in, which is always possible here. In fact, Thursday’s conditions, with a warming afternoon sun and only light breezes, may prove to be the easiest scoring conditions of the week. And the course defended itself well.
Maybe too well, if that's possible. The top three players in the Official World Golf Ranking combined to shoot 19 over par in their disastrous opening rounds. Luke Donald, your No. 1-ranked king of the world, made no birdies and bogeyed four of the first six holes en route to an astonishingly ugly 79. Rory McIlroy, your No. 2 and former king of the world, staggered through eight bogeys and posted 77. Lee Westwood, No. 3, rallied slightly to shoot 73 and keep his chances alive.
Donald and McIlroy face uphill battles, unlikely at best, just to make the cut. They'll need to shoot under par Friday, and only a handful of players managed to do that on Thursday.
"The top three players in the world, and we made three birdies between us," Donald said later. "That shows how tough it is. My putter went cold out there."
Andy Zhang, the 14-year-old wonder boy playing in the Open, was eight over par after his first five holes. “On the first tee, I was like, just please don’t hit a hundred-yard slice off the first tee,” Zhang said. “I was shaking really hard.” Remarkably, Zhang played the remaining 13 holes in one over par and posted a 79. “At least I broke 80,” he joked.
There were plenty of disaster stories to go around, like any Open. But it was notable how Olympic came out punching players in the gut right away. Lee Westwood got a taste on his first hole. After missing the green to the right, he tried to bump-and-run a chip up a bank onto the green. He left it short and the ball rolled back to his feet. On the next try, Westwood got it only to the fringe. That was a quick double bogey.
Thompson managed to solve the course. Like any Open, one player always plays well. This is the Thompson who played college golf at Alabama, lost a U.S. Amateur final here at Olympic Club to Colt Knost, and does not have a golf-playing sister named Lexi. He’s known for his putting prowess, and that sparked his 66. He, too, got a rude awakening with a bogey on the opening hole but got the shot back by holing a bunker shot at the par-3 third.
Later in the round, when he was the clear-cut leader, he suddenly noticed the photographers and TV cameras descending upon him. “I got a little nervous there,” said Thompson. “It’s a bit of an adjustment. I kind of wish I was Phil or Tiger because you get the cameras from the beginning.”
He nearly holed a putt from just off the 17th green, and then did sink a 10-footer for birdie on the final hole.
“It was just fun,” said Thompson, speaking a line that’s not likely to be heard again this week. “I love this golf course.”
Thompson fills the role of the obligatory rabbit, an early leader who’s not well-known, and he’s happy to do it. “Well, I’ve always kind of flown under the radar,” he said. “I’ve always been a player who just kind of hangs around. I don’t give up very easily, and I’m proud of that. Give Tiger the spotlight, I don’t care. I’m going to play my game.”
Thompson enjoyed the fact that his threesome teed off on the front nine at the same time that Woods and his threesome teed off at No. 9. “It looked like they had 20,000 people watching that group,” he said. “We might have had a couple hundred. It was really relaxed out there.”
There’s another word that doesn’t usually go with U.S. Open — relaxed. It will get less relaxed Friday, and totally not-relaxed on the weekend. The only upset will be if Olympic doesn’t wind up as the big winner come Sunday night.