The United States Open’s big showdown turned into one big letdown on Thursday.
Tiger Woods played his first tournament in two months and began his comeback with an unsightly double bogey. He made another on the back nine.
Phil Mickelson played in front of his hometown fans, bogeyed three straight holes on the front nine and generally looked like the ringleader of the Gang That Couldn’t Putt Straight. And, oh yeah, he played without a driver in the bag.
Adam Scott, the third member of Thursday morning’s dream 8:06 threesome, played all right for a guy with a broken pinky finger so sore that he has to shake hands using his left hand, but the Aussie was never in danger of visiting red numbers.
Here’s the kind of day it was for the Open’s Power Pairing: When Woods pulled his opening tee shot into the gnarly left rough near the gallery ropes, the fans there clapped wildly and cheered because they were going to get a close-up view of the world’s No. 1-ranked player.
You can’t win the Open on the first day, but you can lose it, the old bromide says. On Thursday Woods and Mickelson didn’t lose it. In fact, they battled back and salvaged decent rounds by Open standards. Woods shot 72, one over par, Mickelson shot 71 and Scott, in case anyone is still reading this sentence, shot 73.
The first-round leader board featured surprise co-leaders Justin Hicks and Kevin Streelman at three-under 68. Stuart Appleby, Eric Axley, Rocco Mediate and Geoff Ogilvy were tied for third at two under.
But few were focusing on their heroics. Rather, all eyes were on Tiger and Phil, and what they saw wasn’t pretty.
“Par is the gauge I use,” said Mickelson. “I don’t look at what other players are shooting. Scores in the Open usually gravitate toward par.”
Woods, wearing a bright blue shirt and khaki cap, clearly favored his surgically repaired left knee when he walked. He also was very careful whenever he squatted to line up a putt, and when he retrieved his ball from the cup, he bent down on his right leg to do it. “It’s just a little sore,” Woods said afterward of the left knee, failing to reveal any more details about what kind of pain or how much discomfort he’s feeling.
Woods had a bizarre mix of highlights and lowlights. “I had two doubles and a three-putt and I’m only four shots back — that’s great position,” he said after his round. “I just need to clean up the round a little bit. I had a chance to finish even par and three-whipped the last hole.”
At the par-4 first, he chipped back to the fairway from a bad lie in the rough, sent his approach just long into another testy lie, flopped a shot to six feet and missed his putt for bogey. Welcome back to tournament golf for the first time since the Masters, Tiger. That was his first double bogey of 2008.
“I wanted to get back in the flow and it helped to hit six shots on the first hole,” Woods joked. “That was a terrible way to start. The wedge shot to the green, I flew it past the pin. That was a terrible mistake.”
At the par-4 fourth, he stiffed his second shot from a fairway bunker for a kick-in birdie. At the par-4 sixth, he pulled his approach shot into the left greenside bunker and angrily swung his club in disgust. He was able to save par, however. At the par-4 seventh, moments after watching Scott’s shot roll off the back of the green and down into a collection area, Woods hit a shot that bounced hard on the putting surface and followed Scott’s. He rescued par with a deft bump-and-run pitch.
Tiger started a brief run at the par-3 eighth. His approach shot landed just over the flag, caught a slope and rolled back to within eight feet. He holed the putt for his first birdie of the Open. He birdied the par-5 ninth, too, and suddenly was an impressive one under par.
Then came more struggles. Woods strayed into the rough at the long par-4 12th hole, stopped a remarkable pitch on the green 20 feet below the hole and rammed home the par putt. His 6-iron approach at the par-5 13th hole from 215 yards came up just short and rolled 40 yards back down the fairway. He sent his pitch long into another patch of dense grass, pitched on and holed a 15-footer to save par.
There was a rare sight at the par-4 14th, where Woods tried his trademark stinger 3-wood shot off the tee but pulled it badly to the left and into a fairway bunker. His next shot came up 10 yards short of the green and he needed four more shots to get down, another double bogey.
Mickelson struggled to find fairways, prompting his bogey run on the front, and did not look good with the putter. He sank a 20-footer for birdie at the par-4 10th hole, but the shot of his you’ll see on Thursday’s highlight shows was his second with a utility club from the rough on the 12th. He moved the ball about six feet, shook the sting out of his wrist, and then tried again from a better lie and plowed it onto the green 240 yards away , salvaging a bogey.
Mickelson climbed back to even par by two-putting for birdie from 40 feet at the par-5 18th, which he reached in two shots. Woods ended the day on a disappointing note, three-putting from 40 feet for par.
“I thought Tiger played great,” Mickelson said. “He had three of the best par putts. He fought hard.”
As for his decision to play without a driver, Mickelson joked that short-game guru Dave Pelz has been trying to get him to play a whole tournament without a driver for years. The fairways are firm and fast and shots are running out, Mickelson said, and the fairways pinch in somewhat at longer distances, so driver isn’t really necessary or even advisable. For the most part he stuck with his 3-wood off the tee and when asked again about his strategy, he mixed a joke with a free plug, laughingly scolding the writers because “you don’t know how far these Callaway fairway woods go — they’re long.”
Woods was asked about Phil’s driver-less strategy. “It’s a strong 3-wood, like about 11 degrees,” he said. “It’s like an old brassie [2-wood].”
They’ll play together again on Friday afternoon. Expect a better show.