TIGER WOODS took one giant leap back towards Major championship redemption yesterday.
Woods produced an uncanny array of shots as he compiled a one-under-par 69 at the US Open, his sterling efforts on the feared Lake Course at Olympic put firmly in perspective by the horrors endured by his vaunted playing partners, Phil Mickelson and Bubba Watson.
Watson, the swashbuckling hero of April's Masters, was humbled as he opened with a 78, while Mickelson's prospects of ending a long, frustrating drought at this national championship were severely undermined by his first-round 76.
This represents a stunning 18-shot swing between Woods and Mickelson since Lefty outscored the Tiger by 11 strokes with a winning 64 when they last played together on Sunday in February's AT&T National at Pebble Beach.
Indeed, it's the first time in five meetings, stretching back to 2007, that Woods has outscored Mickelson, head-to-head.
The efforts of Mickelson and Watson looked especially puny alongside those of Michael Thompson (27), a second-year PGA Tour player who loped into the early clubhouse lead with a sensational 66.
Thompson fared well in the US Amateur here at Olympic five years ago and was leading amateur in a tie for 27th at Torrey Pines in 2008, his only previous US Open.
Tiger was almost as serene after his round as he had been on the course. "It's going to be a hell of a test this week, it's only going to get harder," he said after signing for his best opening round at the Majors since St Andrews in 2010.
"The golf course was really quick," added Woods, who was joined on one-under in the clubhouse by David Toms. "I was very surprised at how much it had changed overnight, just how much speed the fairways had picked up and the springiness of the greens.
"But I was really excited at how I was able to execute my game plan today and I'm pleased with a one-under-par round."
There was something about the nonchalant way in which Woods ambled down the ancient, tilted fairways at Olympic yesterday, often with hands in pockets. If there was any change in there, one suspects he was flicking it through his fingers.
Tiger looked every bit the man back in his natural element.
In the four years since registering the most recent of his 14th Major victories 550 miles down the California coast in Torrey Pines, Woods has rarely looked this much at ease.
He was so much in control of his ball and, just as importantly, himself during the opening round, it was reminiscent of the imperious Tiger of old.
Many others grappled with blustery, cold conditions on a fast course which twists its way up and down the eastern slopes of a giant dune between Lake Merced and the Pacific Ocean.
Yet, Tiger took pleasure in shaping his shots left and right onto tight fairways which, more often than not, are cambered against the direction of the dog-leg and have many humps and hollows, which offer difficult lies.
Woods rose to the challenge and plainly enjoyed hitting his ball high or low as the situation demanded as he drew deep on the confidence built up by last Sunday week's victory at Memorial.
It's impossible to measure precisely how much Mickelson and Watson were worn down by Tiger's dominance against their own fumbling and misfortune.
Mickelson, many people's fancy this week after 'recovering' from the 'mental fatigue' which 'forced' him to retire after the first round at Memorial, was inexplicably imprecise yesterday -- especially with his trusty three-wood off the tee.
No doubt, he was unlucky on the first hole, when his tee shot literally vanished into the dense branches of a Cypress tree.
The broad smile Lefty flashed at his caddie Jim 'Bones' Mackay after he sank a five-foot putt for 'birdie' with the second ball stated eloquently just how important this opening five was to the Californian.
Another bogey out of a greenside bunker at 10 was no laughing matter and Mickelson would make it an unhappy hat-trick at the next. "I didn't play very well, you could see that," he said.
"I think Tiger's playing really well. He has really solid control of his ball flight and trajectory. It was quite impressive."
Augusta hero Watson was always expected to struggle at Olympic, where the wild and wonderful excesses of 'Bubba golf' were never going to be forgiven as readily as at The Masters.
After opening with a facile par at the downhill ninth, Woods stamped his authority on the three-ball with a towering drive over the dog-leg at the 10th hole, his second.
Watson took an iron and hit his ball through that fairway into the rough on the left, while Mickelson's three-wood was slightly over-drawn and trickled into the long grass to the right.
Tiger's ball was a good 100 yards further up the fairway. Though he didn't make birdie at this hole, an important marker had been thrown down. Not that everything went Tiger's way. He made bogey at 14, for example, after hitting his approach through the back of the green.
However, his fabulous shot-making drew just reward at 17, where he made a facile two-putt for the first birdie of his championship.
The first six holes at Olympic have been widely described as the toughest opening stretch at the Majors.
They're the litmus test at this US Open and, tellingly, Tiger emerged with red figures from this devilish sextet yesterday. After a satisfying par-fours at the lengthy 509-yard first, Woods then pulled a three-foot birdie putt left of the hole at two.
Any frustration with his putter soon dissipated, however, when Woods holed out from eight feet for par at the third and then charged a 42-foot monster into the cup at five as he completed back-to-back birdies.
Though the massive galleries following Tiger gasped when he played the first loose iron shot of his day into a greenside bunker for bogey at six, Woods flashed a message to the entire field by playing those key half-dozen holes in one-under.
The quality of his golf and the humbling of two splendid Major champions like Mickelson and Watson strongly suggested that Tiger is back in all his pomp at the US Open.
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