Thompson Leads U.S. Open; Tiger near the Top

By: Jeff Shelley

Michael Thompson had a special Thursday at the Olympic Club. The 27-year-old Tucson native fired a stellar 4-under 66 to take the opening-round lead in the U.S. Open.

After going out on the front side with an even-par 34 thanks to three birdies and a like number of bogeys, Thompson warmed up with four birdies on the back on a day when only six players broke par at Olympic's hard-and-fast Lake Course alongside Lake Merced in San Francisco.

Paired in the first two rounds this year with Colt Knost, Thompson has some experience at this year's Open venue: he lost to the Texan 2 & 1 in the 36-hole final of the 2007 U.S. Amateur at Olympic.

"I thought it was a great opportunity for us to go out and have a little rematch. It was a lot of fun. Colt is a great guy, and a great competitor," Thompson said in a TV interview (Knost had a 75). "We both have a lot of good memories from this place. It's just exciting to be back here at the Olympic Club."

Thompson played as an amateur at the 2008 U.S. Open at Torrey Pines; this is his first as a professional, yet he's staying with the same family as he did for the Amateur. "I think it's a real advantage having played here in 2007," said Thompson, who needed only 22 putts Thursday. "A lot of the players haven't seen the changes to the courses since 1998. Knowing, remembering certain spots that I have been in before, you play the course 15, 20 times, you're going to know where to hit it and where not to. And what side of the hole is best." (See below for Thompson's full post-round interview.)

Playing in the marquee threesome with reigning Masters' champion Bubba Watson and four-time major winner Phil Mickelson, Tiger Woods had a good outing, carding a slick 1-under 69 that listed three birdies and a pair of bogeys. Watson opened with a 78 and Mickelson a 76.

Woods is tied for second with David Toms, Nick Watney, 2010 U.S. Open champion Graeme McDowell and Justin Rose.

"I played well today," noted Woods, who's looking for his fourth U.S. Open title, which would put him three shy of Jack Nicklaus's all-time record of 18 major titles. "I felt like I had control of my game all day and just stuck to my game plan and executed my game plan.

"Made a couple changes out there because the wind had shifted and the fairways were faster and so it was, we knew it was going to get quick as the week progressed, but we didn't think it was going to happen overnight," added Woods, who birdied two of the toughest holes on the course, the par-4s at Nos. 4 (438 yards) and 5 (489).

"I was really, really surprised at how much it had changed from last night or from yesterday. We teed off the same time yesterday and it wasn't that bad. Come out here today and it's just like they used SubAir (system) on the whole place and it was just quick. And we had to make the adjustments and I felt like I did that today."

McDowell has an affinity for U.S. Open courses and he's proven it in the past. "I've always enjoyed the U.S. Open, even before I won Pebble (Beach) I always enjoyed the U.S. Open setups. And if you would have asked me before I won Pebble where did I fancy my chances, which majors did I like the best, I probably would have always said to you the U.S. Open and the British Open. Those are the two that I would always choose.

"I've always enjoyed the set-ups," added the 32-year-old Northern Irishman. "It really rewards placement off the tee, just hanging tough, staying patient, placing your iron shots, chipping, putting; really it's golf's toughest test. And they set the course up really it's unique the golf course this year, there's no doubt about it. It asks you to hit very perspective shots."

Like Woods, 13-time Tour winner Toms posted a three-birdie, three-bogey 69. The 2001 PGA champion, whose last victory came at the 2011 Colonial, was pleased with his score and impressed with the USGA's work for the course in the first round.

"I thought the golf course was set up pretty nicely, actually," said the 45-year-old Louisianan. "I think if somebody - well, you saw 4 under par today, so obviously you can score on the golf course the way it was set up. They had a couple of tees moved up. The ball was chasing out, so it wasn't playing that long. It was just very, very difficult to get the ball in the fairway.

"So if you can't do that, then you can't attack the pins that are close to the edges," added Toms. "For me 1-under par was obviously a great round of golf. My short game was good today, my up-and-down game. I scored probably better than I played. I couldn't seem to find the fairways early, and some way, I just scrambled around and made a lot of pars and started to hit the ball better, get the ball in the fairway."

The field's other heralded triumvirate - No. 1-ranked Luke Donald, No. 2 Rory McIlroy and No. 3 Lee Westwood - failed to impress, finishing a collective 19-over par Thursday. Donald had a 79, defending champion McIlroy an eight-bogey-one-birdie 77, and Westwood a 73.

McIlroy knows he'd better get his act together to have any chance of retaining the U.S. Open's hardware, called the Jack Nicklaus Medal for the first time this year. "I . . . was in the wrong position off the tee or with my second shot and it makes it very difficult," the 23-year-old Ulsterman said. "You know, when you're trying to play catch up on this golf course; it's very hard. I was able to make one birdie out there today. I need to try to make more tomorrow and limit the mistakes.

"But you have to be so precise. Anything just a little off and it really punishes you. You have to be precise with your tee shots and your iron shots and leave it on the right side of the pins and today I didn't really do any of that."

Donald didn't adhere to his comments about Olympic - and himself - made this week. "As I said earlier, the U.S. Open, the margins are that much smaller and if you're just a little bit off, which I was today, it's tough," he told reporters. "And then you have to really rely on chipping it close and making some putts and I didn't do that.

"My putter kind of went cold today; otherwise I could have probably grounded out a more respectable score. But this place is tough. I feel like even from yesterday it got a lot tougher and I didn't hit the shots when I needed to."

Jason Dufner, one of the pre-tournament favorites off his two-win season and leadership of the season-long FedEx Cup points list, carded a 72.

For awhile Thursday, Michael Allen had the shot of the day after jarring his second shot on the par-4 14th for an eagle. "I had about 142 (yards) to the hole. It was into the wind, it was playing kind of long," noted Allen, a native San Franciscan, Champions Tour regular and member at Olympic since he was a teenager. "So I kind of hit like a nice 150 shot and it just came out. At that point, I just felt I really needed to hit a good shot and get a good birdie putt and then to see it go in.

"I felt like maybe now I'm kind of back in the tournament and having a chance to still be, get things going out here and get things going the right way," added Allen, the 2009 Senior PGA champion, who posted a 1-over 71 and is in contention.

But then Watney took over shot-of-the-day honors with a very rare double-eagle on the 17th. From about 190 yards on the 522-yard par-5, the Sacramento native holed out a tantalizingly, rolling 5-iron to tremendous cheers from the gallery. It was only the third albatross in U.S. Open history. T.C. Chen did it in 1985 on the second hole at Oakland Hills, and Shaun Micheel managed the near-impossible feat in 2010 on the sixth at Pebble Beach.

Beau Hossler, a 17-year-old from Mission Viejo, Calif., who also played in last year's Open at Congressional but didn't make the cut, is the low amateur through 18 holes, posting an impressive even-par 70. He's tied for seventh with such luminaries as Matt Kuchar, Ian Poulter and former U.S. Open champion Jim Furyk.

The teenager was in the first group out Thursday and took advantage of the pristine status of the course. "It was great," said Hossler, who will play golf next year for the University of Texas. "Got to play on pure greens for the first nine holes and these greens are really good even on the back nine with people trampling them. I'm sure they will be good tomorrow . . . they were perfect the first nine. So it was great to go out with no wind as well."

Hossler isn't the most callow stripling in the 2012 U.S. Open; that honor goes to Andy Zhang, a 14-year-old from China who now lives in San Diego. Zhang is the youngest-ever contestant in 112 American national golf championships and the first entrant from China; he posted a 79, tying the top-rated player in the world and 2005 U.S. Open champion Michael Campbell, among others.

Zhang found the conditions a bit different than Hossler. "(The course) was really tough," he said. "I didn't hit the ball quite well, but my putting was okay. So, but the course is really tough. So I'm actually okay with what I shot today . . . At least I broke 80."

Casey Martin, the Oregon men's golf team coach who qualified for his second U.S. Open - the first was in 1998 also at Olympic - carded a 74. "I felt like I was in a war," the 40-year-old Martin said at greenside. Martin, who finished in 23rd place 14 years ago, is allowed to use a golf cart due to a birth defect in his right leg.

Considering that Martin hasn't played much competitive golf, his round might have been even more remarkable than Thompson's. "It's been a long time," the Oregon native - dressed Thursday in the Ducks' garish Nike green - said to reporters about his previous tournaments. "A long time . . . because I haven't competed in six years, you feel nerves. The sectional qualifying, I got a little nervous, but not like this. I haven't felt like this in a long, long time. It's the U.S. Open, you don't, you can play in PGA Tour events all day long (and) it doesn't feel like this.

"I love to compete, I love the game," he added. "I wouldn't want to play this tournament every week . . . it's such a stress. I don't know how to explain that. I'm trying not to be overly dramatic . . . it's just really, really stressful. Especially when I'm not used to playing in front of people and there's people and then the fairways are really tight and the greens are so tough. It's just everything combined . . . it's overwhelming at times, but you just got to kind of take a deep breath."

After signing his card, Thompson met with reporters and discussed his fine outing.

MODERATOR: We're very happy to have joining us Michael Thompson who opened with a sparkling 66 today. Can you talk a little bit about your round and how you were feeling out there?

MICHAEL THOMPSON: Feeling really calm and relaxed. I had a game plan going in. I've been here from Friday practicing, so I felt really comfortable on the course. Just going in, I know it's a U.S. Open, so you've got to go in and expect to make bogeys and expect to make tough putts for par. I got off to a I guess a pretty good start. I made bogey on the first hole but made a good par on the second from the back, left bunker and holed out from the bunker on 3 for birdie.

I felt like I was sticking to my game plan and really just trying to be patient and know that the chances were going to come. I guess I made a couple of bogeys on the 5 and 6 and then birdied 7 and 9 to get back to even par. And then on the backside the putter just I mean seems like every putt went in the hole. I think I made five 3's in a row, and then was cruising. Got a little nervous there once all those cameras showed up. It's always a little bit of an adjustment. In that sense, I kind of wish I was Phil or Tiger, because you get the cameras from the beginning.

But really held it together. 16 was playing really difficult into the wind today. And then 17, I thought a hit a great third shot and then almost putted it in from just off the back of the green. Then 18 I was just trying to hit a good putt and made I guess a 10 footer or so for birdie to finish off the round. It was just fun. I love this golf course. It's the U.S. Open and I told my caddie a couple of times, I said, man, this is so awesome being here. I've been looking forward to hopefully playing in this event for over two years, since the U.S. Amateur in '07. I just can't be more thrilled.

MODERATOR: Speaking of the 2007 Amateur, you were the runner up that year. You have a lot of experience. You've played a lot of rounds here. How nice is it to have that familiarity as you head out playing in the Open?

MICHAEL THOMPSON: I think it's a real advantage. There's a lot of guys out on Tour who - especially some of the older guys haven't seen the course since '98 and it's very, very different from then. And to be able to have that experience, I almost played, I guess 11, rounds in nine or ten days and you play a golf course, any golf course that many times you're going to know where to hit it. I don't know, I just fed off those vibes. I hit a lot of good shots, made a lot of good putts that week, and obviously off to a great start this week.

Q. The first thing you said was you were calm and relaxed. How do you stay calm and relaxed in the first round of a U.S. Open?

MICHAEL THOMPSON: This is my third major now. I got to play, too, as an amateur, where basically you have no expectations, no - there's no real pressure on you playing as an amateur, because you have nothing to lose. I kind of just try to go in with the same attitude. I've got nothing to lose. This is just a bonus in my career. I'm not guaranteed into all the majors as a professional. And to be able to have the opportunity to play is just a wonderful experience. And then to have it be on one of my most favorite golf courses in the world, even better. I just - I've been working hard since Friday, and I think that really calmed me down in terms of I have something to focus on other than what's going on around me. And I just went out and enjoyed the experience. I didn't really care what happened today. I know what I'm working on right now is going to benefit me further on into the future.

Q. Because you wanted to get here so badly and this is kind of a bonus for you, was there actually kind of more pressure on you, in the sectional you wanted to advance and that was the big round for you?

MICHAEL THOMPSON: Oh, yeah. It's like the second stage of Q School. Second stage is really tougher than the final stage. Being able - one, being exempt into the sectionals was a huge benefit. But my game wasn't near what I wanted it to be going into sectionals. I teed it up that day really wanting to qualify, but at the same time really not having a whole lot of confidence in my abilities.

And I went out and played great - played okay in the first round, I was just real conservative. I got upset at myself. I had a peanut butter and jelly sandwich, had 20 minutes in between rounds, and went straight to the driving range and pounded 6 irons for 15 minutes. I was so determined I was going to get my swing to where I wanted to be to actually go out and play and be competitive. And the wind kicked up, which has always been good for me. I always have felt like I'm a good wind player. My putter got hot, as well. When I got done that day I couldn't believe I finished second. I had no idea where I stood and I felt like there was enough good players that I'd be right around the cut line. It just all worked out.

Q. You know that people are going to look at the leaderboard and see Michael Thompson at 4 under and look right past you to Tiger Woods at 1 under. Make the argument why they shouldn't look past you, that Michael Thompson's name could stay in this mix over the weekend?

MICHAEL THOMPSON: Well, the way I look at it is I've always kind of flown under the radar. Obviously my name's in the spotlight, but a lot of people don't know who I am. And I'm totally okay with that because I've always been a player that just kind of hangs around. I don't give up very easily and I'm very proud of that. Give Tiger the spotlight. I don't care. I'm going to go out and play my game. If I go out and putt the way I did today I'll be in contention.

Q. You talk about your experience on this course. Have you played here much since the U.S. Amateur; and same question, are you enjoying a little friendly revenge against most, at least for today?

MICHAEL THOMPSON: You know, actually I haven't been back to San Francisco since '07. I've been meaning to come and visit the family that I'm staying with, I'm staying with the same family I did during the U.S. Am. Jim and Joanne Hickman. They live on Lombard Street, on the crookedest street in the world. It's been a joy to be able to spend time with them, kind of reminisce on days past and just enjoy this new experience. Today was fun with Colt. We talked about the U.S. Amateur and the changes with the golf course from then till now. And just joking and just enjoying, I guess, each other's company. I know Colt's a strong competitor and he's going to fight back. I know he didn't have a great round today, but I don't expect him to be out of this by any means.

Q. This is event is so magnified. People are going to see your name and want to know more about you. How would you describe Michael, the person, not the player?

MICHAEL THOMPSON: Well, I like to - my parents raised me real well in that I was very well rounded. I played soccer all the way through high school, obviously played golf competitively and loved golf. I played basketball until I was 12. I'm an Eagle Scout. I love giving back. I try to do as many junior clinics as I can. I go down and practice with the Alabama golf team all the time trying to instill what little wisdom I have. They're so good they don't need any.

I've gone up and talked to the Vanderbilt golf team. I'm a strong Christian. I miss going to church at the church in Birmingham where I live. I have a couple really good friends in Birmingham that it's always nice to go home to, because we don't talk about golf, at all. And good friends of mine, Ben and Beth Moody, and they are not afraid to tell me how it is. As a golfer, especially on this stage, it's really nice to have people like that. But I'm married to a wonderful woman, Rachel. She's out here every week supporting me. I wouldn't be here without all the people around me. I'm not Michael Thompson without my team. I owe a lot of credit to them.

Q. You said early on that as the crowd started - to be more cameras as the round went on you felt more nervous. What is your anticipation tonight for tomorrow? Are you a guy that visualizes about things it's going to be like?

MICHAEL THOMPSON: The good thing is that I can refer to a lot of past memories, playing in the Masters as an amateur, playing in the U.S. Open at Torrey Pines as an amateur. I can look back on when I had the lead at McGladrey last year, when I was tied for the lead at the Canadian Open last year. I'm going to look back on those memories and how I felt during those rounds, post lead and all that stuff and try to just learn from it.

I know tomorrow is Friday, just go out and do my best. Anything can happen. It's a U.S. Open, I could get bad bounces tomorrow. That kind of stuff is out of my control. But I can do the visualizations and build on the confidence that I gained today to go out tomorrow and have fun. And as far as tonight is, tonight is going to be relaxing, because my wife and I are going out to dinner. I'm taking her on a date. That will be a good night.

Q. Do you have a spot picked out?

MICHAEL THOMPSON: We're going to a restaurant called Kokkari in downtown San Francisco and have eaten there already this week. It's a fabulous restaurant.

Q. Your group started concurrently with the Tiger, Phil, Bubba group. Did you know that before? Did you realize that? What was your atmosphere early on, maybe compared to theirs?

MICHAEL THOMPSON: Very different (laughter). It looked like they probably had 20,000 people watching their group. And I think we might have had a couple hundred. It was really relaxed out there. I've got a bunch of family here, so it's nice that - it's nice, one, to play well in front of family and friends, but also just to hear them cheering and screaming and enjoying themselves, as well. It was just fun. The Tiger, Bubba, Phil thing, that's exciting. That's typical USGA, putting the big three together. I think it's great for golf. Hopefully one of these days in the future I'll be part of that group.

Q. You are 2 over after 6 which means you are 6 under the rest of the way. How do you do that?

MICHAEL THOMPSON: I don't know. You know, again, just the mindset of the U.S. Open is just hang in there. You get 2 over par, you're really not playing that poorly. I knew 7 was a short par 4, that if I hit a good tee shot, which I ended up in the front right bunker, I could at least give myself a chance for birdie. 8, obviously just make par. That's a totally different hole than '07. And then 9, I hit a great tee shot and a great second shot to 15 feet past the hole. And one of those downhill, left to right putts that just happened to catch the edge of the hole.

And then from then on I just kept playing solid, fairways and greens, fairways and greens. That's really huge out here. In any U.S. Open, especially here at Olympic, because the fairways are very difficult to hit because they're sloped and they're angled in weird ways. On top of that, just getting my putter hot. I think I had five or six, 1 putts on the backside and it was just fun.

Q. (Inaudible.)

MICHAEL THOMPSON: I think for the first six holes, yeah. 1, 5 and 6 are really difficult par 4s in that they're just so long. You've just got to survive those holes. And the experience that I've had playing in the U.S. Amateur and then being here since Friday, just getting to see the golf course multiple, multiple times, allows me to find the right lines off the tees and allows me to figure out how I want the ball to come into those greens. I can't tell you how many times today we were just trying to hit it front edge, if not five shy of the green, and letting it bounce up. And that's just the way you've got to play a U.S. Open. I like USGA events. They're fun.

MODERATOR: Well, we congratulate you again on your great play today. Thank you for joining us, and we wish you well the rest of the way.


The transcript for the above interview is courtesy of ASAP Sports.