Commentary

Tiger passes first Olympic test

Updated: June 15, 2012, 1:55 AM ET
By Gene Wojciechowski | ESPN.com

SAN FRANCISCO -- Bubba Watson looked like he couldn't wait to leave courtesy car tire tracks out of the players' parking lot.

Phil Mickelson had a post-round appointment at the driving range. Something about having to reattach the lug nut to his swing.

And Tiger Woods? Content. Serene. Not smug, but definitely feeling good about himself and his first-round wrestling match with Olympic Club and the U.S. Open.

Woods shot a 1-under-par 69 on Thursday, which doesn't sound all that impressive until you see all the train wrecks on other Open scorecards. Then it starts to look like a 59.

[+] EnlargePhil Mickelson
Kyle Terada/US PresswirePhil Mickelson's 76 leaves him on the outside looking in of the cutline after 18 holes. He'll get another 18 on Friday to try to make up ground to play the weekend.

"As far as the golf course, it's just demanding," said Woods, who is 3 strokes off the lead. "It does wear on you because there's no let up."

Woods wasn't perfect, but then again he didn't have to be. He just needed to do the opposite of what playing partners Bubba and Phil did, which was pretty much eliminate themselves from the championship on Day 1.

Watson, who won the Masters in April, won't have to worry about a Grand Slam run this year. He shot 78, which is only one stroke better than what 14-year-old amateur Andy Zhang shot Thursday. He'll need a small miracle to make the cut.

"I was a little off here and there," Watson said.

A "little off"? Watson played like a guy who couldn't figure out a Sudoku. He spent most of his day with a "What just happened?" look on his face.

"It beat me up," Watson said of Olympic Club. "It's beating me by eight right now. … It's a lot better than I am."

It was a lot better than Mickelson, too. He shot a 6-over-par 76.

"I've got to wipe this round out," Mickelson said.

Sorry, the U.S. Open rarely allows erasers. Mickelson is stuck with the exact kind of round that all but kneecaps Lefty's chances for his first Open victory.

The weirdness started even before he teed off. Because of the winds blowing from the back of the driving range to the front -- and how it would affect a left-handed player -- Mickelson chose to do much of his pre-round work off to the side of the practice area.

His caddie, Jim MacKay, grabbed three plastic buckets of balls, brought them over to the side, and Mickelson began hitting wedges and irons across the range. Not long before the 7:33 a.m. PT tee time, Mickelson returned to the main area of the range with his driver and several other clubs for about a dozen or so swings.

It was innovative and very Phil-like thinking, except for the part when he hooked his opening tee shot into the netherworld. His drive apparently hit a tree and stayed there. Nobody could find the ball, so Mickelson had to make the dreaded Walk of Shame back to the tee box for his third shot. He bogeyed the hole (the threesome started on No. 9) and he was lucky to do that.

In short, the Big Three pairing of Tiger, Phil and Bubba had all the pop of a single cube of Bazooka gum. Never have so few created so much hype and delivered so little.

It wasn't all their fault. Olympic Club is harder than the LSATs. Something had to give. You just didn't figure it would be Watson and Mickelson.

Earlier in the week, Watson predicted an 80 was "lurking" out there. It was clear he wasn't crazy about the course and even less impressed with the USGA's set-up. He questioned why certain tee boxes were located where they were, why greenside hills were shaved like a Marine recruit at Parris Island, and why a par 5 (the 670-yard 16th) was longer than Pacific Coast Highway.

It was as if he was predisposed to do poorly. And he did.

Exchange with reporters:

Q: "How did your strategy of hitting bomb drivers work having shorter shots in?"

Bubba: "I shot 8-over. So not very good."

Q: "How does the rough play from [using] short irons?"

Bubba: "I shot 8-over. So not very good. You could answer these yourself."

Since winning the Masters, he has a T-18 at the Zurich Classic of New Orleans and a missed cut at Memorial. He also has a newly adopted infant son, so I'm willing to cut Watson a very large break.

But unless he shoots something in the even-par to 2-under range range Friday, he'll be back home for his first Father's Day with little Caleb. That's not a bad thing, but it's not why he flew all the way out to California.

Mickelson has a shorter flight home if he misses the cut (he lives in the San Diego area), but he'll also ruin a lot of U.S. Open office pools. His last two rounds of play: a 79 (and WD at Memorial) and now this 76. Ugly.

"I can't really think about the lead or anything," he said.

Instead, Mickelson is just trying to make it to Saturday.

Meanwhile, Woods is thinking much, much bigger. He won't say it for public consumption, but he's thinking about Sunday and kissing another U.S. Open trophy. He has three. He'd like an even number.

And if you're keeping track, Woods would have beaten Mickelson and Watson in best-ball play by 2 shots. And his last two rounds (the final round at Memorial and the opening round at Olympic), Woods is a combined 6-under while his playing partners are a combined 26-over.

"I felt very pleased with every facet of my game [Thursday] and I stayed very patient out there," Woods said. "As I said, I was very pleased how I executed my game."

Or as Watson put it: "Tiger … that was old Tiger. That was beautiful to watch."

The Big Three make another appearance together Friday afternoon. It would be more beautiful if Watson and Mickelson show up this time.

Gene Wojciechowski is the senior national columnist for ESPN.com. You can contact him at gene.wojciechowski@espn.com. Hear Gene's podcasts and ESPN Radio appearances by clicking here. And don't forget to follow him on Twitter @GenoEspn.

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