|Michael Thompson needed just 22 putts in his round of 66 Thursday. (Joel Kowsky/USGA)|
San Francisco - The first round of the U.S. Open packed a little bit of everything Thursday at The Olympic Club. There was a double eagle, a seven-birdie day by an unassuming and equally unexpected leader, an amateur lodged in the top 10, two balls lost in the trees and, not so unexpectedly, a Tiger on the loose.
Michael Thompson started his round in the overcast morning and ended it in the afternoon sunshine, posting a 4-under 66 over the 7,170-yard Lake Course that included seven birdies and set the early target for everyone else to hit.
No one else got there.
When the second round begins Friday, Thompson will be in front, but there are plenty of pursuers with three regulation laps around Olympic to go.
“I know . . . it’s a U.S. Open, I could get bad bounces . . . that kind of stuff is out of my control, but I can do the visualizations and build on the confidence and go out and have fun,” said Thompson, the runner-up here five years ago at the U.S. Amateur.
Only six players finished the first round under par. Tiger Woods was one of them, headlining a group of five who sit three shots behind after opening-round 69s. Woods is part of an eclectic group that includes Justin Rose, Nick Watney, 2010 champion Graeme McDowell and 2001 PGA champion David Toms.
It’s even more tightly bunched at even-par 70, where eight players reside after 18 holes. Beau Hossler, a 17-year-old amateur qualifier from Mission Viejo, Calif., is among that throng, along with veterans such as Ian Poulter, 1997 U.S. Amateur champion Matt Kuchar and 2003 U.S. Open champion Jim Furyk.
On a highlight reel of an opening day, Watney contributed the show-stopper, holing out from 190 yards on the par-5 17th with a 5-iron for the third double eagle in U.S. Open history. Watney couldn’t see the ball go in the hole, but he heard the noise from the crowd and quickly became very interested.
“It was kind of disbelief and joy, and it was really exciting,” Watney said.
Others weren’t as fortunate. Defending champion Rory McIlroy struggled to a 77, Phil Mickelson, whose opening tee shot was lost in a cypress tree to the right of the ninth fairway, began with his slowest start in a U.S. Open (76) and Masters champ Bubba Watson labored to a 78. Watson and Mickelson were in the marquee grouping with Woods, who is seeking a fourth U.S. Open title.
But for at least one day, the highest flyer was Thompson, a guy who says he enjoys being under the radar.
Thompson, 27, is a sectional qualifier competing in his second U.S. Open, and first since he was low amateur in the 2008 championship at Torrey Pines (T-29). Thompson arrived at Olympic having missed five cuts in 15 PGA Tour events this year, but he also has four top-25 finishes and good feelings about Olympic.
In fact, he is staying with the same family (Jim and Joanne Hickman) he did in 2007.
“To be able to have that experience . . . I played I guess 11 rounds in nine or 10 days and you play a golf course, any golf course that many times [and] you’re going to know where to hit it,” he said. “I just fed off those vibes.”
He must have transferred some of them to his putter. Thompson needed just 22 putts and shot 4-under 32 on an inward nine that featured eight one-putt greens. Beginning at the 11th, Thompson made five consecutive 3s. Those numbers did wonders for his confidence.
“If I go out and putt the way I did today, I’ll be in contention,” he said.
Born in Tucson, Ariz., Thompson, who started playing golf at age 6 after he watched a tournament on television, first enrolled at Tulane University, but transferred to the University of Alabama when Hurricane Katrina belted New Orleans in August 2005 and forced the school to suspend its golf program.
The Eagle Scout admitted that he might not be that well known, but said he can use that to his advantage.
“The way I look at it is I’ve always kind of flown under the radar,” said Thompson. “Obviously my name’s in the spotlight, but a lot of people don’t know who I am. And I’m totally OK 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.”
Woods managed to shine the spotlight on himself in his opening round. He was pleased that he stuck to his game plan, part of which included hitting his driver only three times – on the ninth, 10th and 16th holes – but whatever he did, it added up to his lowest U.S. Open first round since a 67 at Bethpage State Park’s Black Course 10 years ago. That year he won the second of his three titles.
“As far as the golf course, it’s just demanding,” Woods said. “It does wear on you, because there’s no let-up. There’s not a single hole where it’s a breather hole. Normally . . . you can make a mistake here or there, no big deal and you can make it up. You can’t make a mistake up here in this place.”
The nine-time USGA champion displayed a consistency that neither Mickelson nor Watson, the rest of his marquee group, could produce on opening day. Mickelson joined Dustin Johnson in losing a ball in a tree off the tee (Johnson’s came at No. 10) and the 76 matched his worst first-round score in 22 U.S. Open appearances.
“I didn’t play well, obviously,” he said. “You could see that.”
As for Watson, the Masters champion took 78 strokes, the worst round he’s had in six U.S. Open appearances.
“It beat me up today,” Watson said. “It’s winning. It’s beating me by eight shots right now.”
There were more than a few who shared the feeling on Thursday.
Thomas Bonk is a San Francisco-based freelance writer who is contributing to usopen.com this week.