Commentary

Will Friday be even more daunting?

Updated: June 15, 2012, 10:07 AM ET
By Bob Harig | ESPN.com

SAN FRANCISCO -- There was very little red at the Olympic Club on Thursday, unless you're talking about bloodshot eyes, sunburned faces or perhaps the backside variety that occurs when a golfer gets, well, mad.

On the scoreboard? Not so much.

Last year's birdie-fest notwithstanding, red numbers are typically rare at a U.S. Open, and Thursday's first round did not disappoint in that regard.

[+] EnlargeBubba Watson
Cal Sport Media via AP Images"That golf course is too tough for me," Masters champion Bubba Watson said Thursday.
Three players in the morning wave managed to break par on the daunting course, which is home to the championship for the fifth time. Three more did it in the afternoon, and one needed an albatross to pull it off.

That does not exactly suggest things get easier as the proceedings carry on throughout the day. Michael Thompson, a second-year PGA Tour pro who finished as the runner-up at the 2007 U.S. Amateur, beat the field by three strokes and has the largest first-round lead at the U.S. Open since 1970. He shot 66, which seems incredible on a day of so much carnage.

But who knows what awaits Thompson when he returns to Olympic on Friday afternoon? By then, the course may be even more barbaric, more baked out, more baffling.

"The golf course was very quick," said Tiger Woods, who shot 69 while the other members of his elite threesome, Phil Mickelson and Bubba Watson, were a combined 14 over par. "I was very surprised at how much it had changed overnight, just how much speed that the fairways had picked up and the springiness of the greens.

"We knew the greens were going to be a little quicker, but I didn't think they would be this firm this early in the week."

What does that mean for Friday? If the opening act of the 112th U.S. Open was a grind, when several tees were moved up and cool morning temperatures gave way to a glorious day, it is unlikely that things will get any easier.

Often times the doom-and-gloom scenarios laid out before the U.S. Open turn out to be nothing more than needless fretting. But Olympic is turning out to be deserving of such fear.

"That golf course is too tough for me," Masters champion Bubba Watson said.

"If you're off your game just a little bit, you're going to pay the price," Woods said. "It's hard to make pars."

"It played really the way we want a championship course to play," USGA executive director and course set-up man Mike Davis said. "It certainly was a good test of golf. It tested virtually every part of their game. And I think the key was we got the course a little bit more firm to where it had been, candidly, a little bit softer in practice rounds than we would have wanted because it was fairly firm the weekend before."

And the plan for Friday?

"We want to mimic the conditions we had today," he said.

That means a lot of name players are going to have to strike the ball better, chip better and putt better during a second round that promises to be every bit as challenging as the first round.

Consider the top of the world rankings:

Luke Donald, ranked No. 1 in the world and coming off a victory last month at Europe's BMW Championship, couldn't beat an eighth-grader. That is what a brutal U.S. Open course can dish out.

Donald's 79 was only equal to the one shot by 14-year-old Andy Zhang -- who was 5 over par after 3 holes.

The heralded threesome of No. 1 Donald, No. 2 Rory McIlroy and No. 3 Lee Westwood was a combined 19 over par. They combined for three birdies. McIlroy shot 77 and was disappointed about being all but out of the tournament in his U.S. Open title defense. "You just have to be so precise," he said. "Anything just a little off and it really punishes you."

He and Donald, along with Mickelson and Watson, have work to do just to make the 36-hole cut, which includes the top 60 and ties. That's a lot of firepower that could go missing this weekend, and yet an unrelenting Olympic plays no favorites.

Only three players ranked among the top 10 -- No. 4 Woods, No. 6 Matt Kuchar and No. 7 Justin Rose -- managed to break 72. Woods and Rose were the only ones under par.

And yet, nobody suggested the course was unfair, over the top or tricked up. There are some holes that might be questionable, some tees or pin placements or width of fairways. But for a course that has no water hazards, just one fairway bunker, it is so simple in its difficulty.

"The course is super, brilliant," said Padraig Harrington, who nonetheless lamented two four-putt greens in a round of 74. "It's nicely set up. Very playable. It's ideal. It just goes to show that firm greens scare the life out of professional golfers."

Harrington has long been known for his sunny disposition, his unfailingly positive approach. And yet he was seething at his poor effort on the greens. The Irishman was not happy, but he managed to keep a good attitude.

That might be the best club in the bag at Olympic.

Bob Harig covers golf for ESPN.com. He can be reached at BobHarig@gmail.com.

Bob Harig | email

Golf Writer, ESPN.com