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Tiger puts on major display at Olympic for awed, awful playing partners

by | Senior Golf Columnist
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Tiger Woods finishes seven shots up on Phil Mickelson; 'It was impressive,' says Lefty. (US Presswire)  
Tiger Woods finishes seven shots up on Phil Mickelson; 'It was impressive,' says Lefty. (US Presswire)  

SAN FRANCISCO -- Even in a locale known for mist and fog that's thicker than clam chowder, and nearly as chewy, the view from outside the ropes was pretty darned clear.

Same for those watching from up close.

Bubba Watson and Phil Mickelson are more than the two best lefties in the game. They also toured Olympic Club on Thursday alongside former world No. 1 Tiger Woods, who put on a decidedly vivid display of ball-striking.

"Today, he was just the old Tiger," Watson gushed.

Sure, the obvious rejoinder is, where does he go from here? But after a season filled with more ups and downs than a hike around hilly Olympic, after one blissful day of play at the 112th U.S. Open, Woods looked as solid as he has at a major in, oh, around four years.

Going back to the U.S. Open in 2008, in other words, which happens to be the last Grand Slam title he has claimed.

"I felt like I had control of my game all day," Woods said.

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For once, he wasn't huffing and puffing and putting the facts in the spin cycle after dousing them with a splash of bleach. From the very start, as Watson and Lefty were walloping balls into the trees and pelting fans, Woods was drilling drivers down the first two fairways and never looking anywhere but forward.

He hit it as crisp as the seaside air at 7:33 a.m., which happens to be when the marquee trio teed off, local time. Other than a couple of shaky approach shots with short irons in hand, which he attributed to springy greens, Woods missed a tiny handful of shots on a course with almost zero margin for error.

"This golf course, it's so demanding," Woods said. "If you're off your game, you'll pay the price. This is one of those Opens where it's really hard to make birdie."

Woods not only had three birdies, he recorded two of them in the punitive stretch from Nos. 1-6, which he had characterized as the toughest run of opening holes in majors history. That probably underscores the performance as well as anything.

Well, except for what the lefties had to say.

"Yeah, he struck it really well," said Mickelson, who badly bungled the opening holes and shot 76. "He's playing really well. Had really solid control of his flight, trajectory. The way it occurred, it was impressive."

At an event where guys are scrambling madly just to keep their noses above water, Woods stuck with his game plan -- a term he used no less than a half-dozen times afterward -- and was tapping in no-brainer 2-footers for par almost all day.

As for what was scribbled on that cognitive coaching clipboard, Woods said it was to broadly keep the ball in the short grass no matter what. Find fairways and greens, then ad-lib the rest.

"It's basically that," he said.

It was basically perfect. Woods missed three puts from inside 10 feet, including a 4-footer for birdie, which ought to amplify how little hard work he was doing compared to the others.

Watson, the Masters winner two months ago, looked pretty amateurish compared with how Woods was dissecting the course, almost like it was 2000 at Pebble Beach all over again. By the way, Woods is seeking his third Open title in his home state this week.

"That was the old Tiger, that was beautiful to watch," Watson said. "That's what we all come to see. That's what we all want to watch and that was awesome to see. He made a couple bogeys, but under par on this golf course is pretty good."

It was pretty pretty, actually. Woods was credited with hitting 10 of 14 fairways, which is accurate, but it requires an asterisk and an explanation.

On three of those holes, the ball came to rest in the first cut, which means he missed by perhaps two or three feet. On the other miss, he raked a 3-wood tee shot on the drivable seventh hole, playing about 260 yards uphill, into a greenside bunker.

Woods was carving drivers, 3-woods and 2-iron shots in every direction to offset the tilting terrain of Olympic, which is built on the side of a huge sand dune about 500 yards from the shores of the Pacific Ocean.

There was nothing pacific about the play of Eldrick -- he was already wearing his weekend game face, as though he came to reclaim his status as the game's best player. With two victories in 2012, he is edging ever closer to that status yet again.

Are we on the cusp of another career makeover? Woods was certainly quite the shape-shifter on Thursday.

"He hit every shot shape he was trying to hit," Watson said. "I didn't see any bad swings. I didn't see any bad shot, really. He hit every shot, he shaped it the way he wanted to shape it."

Is that all the shape of things to come?

By Sunday night, we could very well have the answer.

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