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Day 1 of U.S. Open a Tale of Two Tigers
When the journalists, broadcasters and odds-makers were asking, "Which Tiger Woods is going to show up this week?" they had the right wording, but weren't asking the right question. When asking, "Which Tiger?" most people were wondering whether we'd see the Tiger who won at the Memorial or the Tiger who tanked at the Masters. They were wondering if Tiger would play well.
But after a 1-under 69 at the fearsome Olympic Club Lake Course to begin the 112th U.S. Open left him in a five-way logjam tied for second, the real analysis may be "Which Tiger?" as in, "The one who uses blunt force to overpower a golf course leaving scorched-earth in his wake, or the one that surgically dissects a course with clinical precision?"
We knew the answer as soon as Woods tacked his way around the course Thursday, carefully balancing three birdies against two bogeys. He was three shots behind the usual puzzling stranger we inevitably get early in U.S. Opens, this time one "Michael Thompson," who shot a seven-birdie, three-bogey 66.
In doing so, Woods looked more like the clinician we saw systematically de-construct Royal Liverpool and Southern Hills. "He Hoylaked the place," said one keen journalist.
"Some holes were set up for a driver and 3-wood, others set up for irons," explained Woods, who's seeking his 15th major to get within three of Jack Nicklaus's all-time record. "Today it was quicker and the tees were somewhat up from where we played our practice rounds . . . that's 20 yards, and all of a sudden we're in the steeper part of the slopes or now we're through doglegs. I had to make an adjustment."
Woods's analysis is, as usual, impeccable. When studying a course to find its weak points he has the discipline and precision of a Soviet chess player. He butterfly-filleted Southern Hills, playing the 10th hole 7-iron, 7-iron. As Jim Furyk would ask, "Who does that??!!" In the second round Woods fired a major-championship record-tying 63.
Then of course in his interview he tried to pass it off as "62-and-a-half," but nobody bought that funky jazz. But I digress. "I tried to hit to the flat part of the greens," he said then. "On these greens, I'd rather have a flat 20-foot putt than a curvy 10-foot one with five feet of break." It worked: He rolled in birdie putt after birdie putt. He even chipped in once.
A year earlier at Hoylake Woods did the same thing, keeping the driver in the bag over a rather pedestrian stretch with flat greens and where the main defense was obnoxious internal out-of-bounds (puke-a-tronic), thoroughly dismembering and disemboweling it: 2-iron, 4-iron, 6-iron.
"I don't like greens with elephants buried under them," he once confided to an R&A official, and he's right. Medinah anyone?
Sometimes Woods likes to rely on what he refers to as that nine-hole stretch where he goes shockingly low and surges ahead. Happily for the field, that's not coming at Olympic Club. It's too brutishly long and relentless. Instead, he once again hit 7-irons off tees to position himself to more easily reach the flat parts of greens. He hit driver only three times Thursday: at nine, 10 and 16. This wasn't trying to out-wrestle the Minotaur, this was trying to tiptoe past it.
"This is one of those Opens where it's just really hard to make birdies. This is not like it was last year, this is a tough one," Tiger confirmed.
Players won't surge to the top; they will, instead, slowly percolate downward, and whoever hits the least bad shots will win rather than the risk-taking swashbuckler. That means it will stay close, as it always does at Olympic Club, so stay strapped in. The forecast is for bad turbulence.
As for Thompson, if this weren't Olympic Club I'd say he'd disappear like a rabbit in a conjuring trick at the first opportunity. But Olympic Club did what it always does, surprise us, and in San Francisco . . . "Well, well, well . . . you can never tell." Digest this stat with your toast and tea: The field played the course to an average of 74.88, so that 66 is more like a 63. The 27-year-old thumped the field by three shots. And most importantly, he putted lights out. Sound familiar? (Cough! Cough! Scott Simpson . . . Scott Simpson . . .)
But it also looks like Tiger will certainly play well all week too - he won't hit it sideways like at Sawgrass. After all, he birdied four and five, which Tom Doak called "the two hardest back-to-back holes" anywhere. Woods played the opening stretch of six holes in 1-under - that's three strokes better than the 2-over figure USGA executive director Mike Davis called "doing really good."
Control is the Rosetta Stone for solving the Lake Course, and with Woods beginning to control his game - finally, he'll have a great chance come Sunday. It's possible the putts may refuse to drop, but if he keeps playing to flat spots below the hole, we may have another paint-by-numbers masterpiece a la Hoylake and Southern Hills.
The other night the San Francisco Giants' Matt Cain pitched a perfect game. That's essentially what it's going to take to stay on top at Olympic Club. And you have to admit the guy who does "perfect" most often is Tiger.
First-Round News, Notes & Quotes
• Michael Allen, a member of Olympic Club, not only shot 71 but eagled the 14th for the first time in over 2,000 rounds here.
• Nick Watney carded a double-eagle on the par-5 17th hole, hitting a 5-iron from 190 yards out. "It was kind of disbelief, kind of joy. It was exciting," said the Sacramento native.
• There were five birdies at the 670-yard 16th. It played to a stroke average of 5.57, possibly a record. By contrast, the 17th - also a par-5 - had four eagles and Watney's albatross.
Since launching his first golf writing website in 2004, http://jayflemma.thegolfspace.com, Jay Flemma 's comparative analysis of golf designs and knowledge of golf course architecture and golf travel have garnered wide industry respect. In researching his book on America's great public golf courses (and whether they're worth the money), Jay, an associate editor of Cybergolf, has played over 420 nationally ranked public golf courses in 40 different states, and covered seven U.S. Opens and six PGA Championships, along with one trip to the Masters. A four-time award-winning sportswriter, Jay was called the best sports poet alive by both Sports Illustrated and NBC Sports writers and broadcasters. Jay has played about 3 million yards of golf - or close to 2,000 miles. His pieces on travel and architecture appear in Golf Observer (www.golfobserver.com), Cybergolf, PGA.com, Golf Magazine and other print magazines. When not researching golf courses for design, value and excitement, Jay is an entertainment, copyright, Internet and trademark lawyer and an Entertainment and Internet Law professor in Manhattan. His clients have been nominated for Grammy and Emmy awards, won a Sundance Film Festival Best Director award, performed on stage and screen, and designed pop art for museums and collectors. Jay lives in Forest Hills, N.Y., and is fiercely loyal to his alma maters, Deerfield Academy in Massachusetts and Trinity College in Connecticut.