SAN FRANCISCO — Tournament's over, folks.
There may be 54 holes left to play, but Tiger Woods has already won this U.S. Open. Forget the fire hydrant, the swing change, the dropped-kicked 9-iron — that's all ancient history now. Woods displayed some vintage dominance during a first round 69 at our 112th national championship. He's three shots out of the lead and no one can catch him. (Sorry, Mr. Bamberger.)
The Olympic Club has a history of slaying great champions, but it's a perfect venue for Woods. The twisty, quirky holes demand shotmaking, which brings out the best in the 14-time major champion. During his first round, it seemed like Woods was at times using Whiffle balls as he curved shots in all manner of ways as he fairway-and-greened Olympic into submission.
With the course becoming increasingly firm and fast under sunny skies, Woods turned conservative, hitting driver only three times. Tiger has long been the game's most adroit tactician, and this fiery golf course only exaggerates his advantage.
"You gotta really grind," Woods said after the round. "I've always preferred the conditions to be difficult. It brings in the shotmaking. It brings our mind into play. I like that."
The only things that kept this from being a truly special round were a pair of mediocre bunker shots, and a couple of short putts he didn't clean up. So, yeah, 69 is probably the worst score Woods could have shot. Expect him to go even lower.
Woods has already won twice during this comeback season, a five-stroke blowout at Bay Hill and a spectacular Sunday comeback at the Memorial. But even as he has displayed increasing control of his golf ball, the U.S. Open loomed as the ultimate examination, especially in the wake of his Masters meltdown. Woods's 69 is all the more impactful because it came in the day's marquee pairing.
The merciless beat-down he administered to Phil Mickelson (76) and Bubba Watson (78) was reminiscent of all the carnage he inflicted around the turn of the century. The signature moment of the day may have been on the uphill par-5 17th hole, when Woods blew his drive well past his would-be rivals; they hit driver, and all he needed was a 3-wood. For all the sorry shots Mickelson and Watson hit, what lingers most is their hangdog countenance as they sullenly realized they were overmatched, by Woods and the course.
Watson could scarcely contain his awe. "That was the old Tiger," he 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 to see him strike the ball."
With all due respect to Michael Thompson, Alistair Presnell, Beau Hossler, Jason Bohn and the other luminaries on the leaderboard, the next three rounds are all about Tiger. It's time to restart the countdown to 18. (That's Jack Nicklaus's record number of major championship, but you already knew that.) Woods's four U.S. Open victories will tie him with Willie Anderson, Bobby Jones, Ben Hogan and Jack Nicklaus for the all-time record. Love him or hate him, Woods is most definitely back.
"There's no letup," he said on Thursday afternoon.
Tiger was talking about the golf course, but it also applies to our freshly-minted Open champion as well.