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Tiger's solid round puts him near Open lead

Tiger Woods hits a drive on the seventh

Tiger Woods hits a drive on the seventh hole during a practice round for the U.S. Open Championship golf tournament. (June 12, 2012) Credit: AP

SAN FRANCISCO -- The first shots on the first hole were all you needed to see. Phil Mickelson's ball never came down from a cypress tree, Bubba Watson's ball was in such thick rough that he could barely gouge it out and Tiger Woods' ball went right down the middle.

Yes, all of the excitement leading up to the first round of the U.S. Open Thursday had been about that high-powered threesome. Right from the start, though, it was clear that this was a one-man show. The marquee group was all Woods, and some believe the whole championship could wind up the same way.

Woods was solid in shooting 1-under-par 69, three shots behind the leader Michael Thompson and miles ahead of Mickelson (6 over) and Watson (8 over).

"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. That was awesome."

The four years since he last won a major have been peppered with flashes of Woods showing his old dominant form. It hasn't taken hold yet. Still, for one day, he was thoroughly in control of his shots on the tough, tight, sloping Olympic Club Lake Course. He adjusted to the conditions that grew firmer and faster "overnight," in his opinion.

He strategically hit irons off the tee seven times, as opposed to only three holes on which he hit driver. He made three birdies, including two of the famously tough holes 1 through 6. Woods sank a fast, twisting 30-foot birdie putt on No. 5.

"He struck it really well," Mickelson said. "He's playing really well. He had really solid control of his flight, trajectory and the way it occurred. It was impressive."

It also was his first under-par round to open an Open since he won at Bethpage in 2002.

"Today was basically how I have been hitting it," said Woods, who was coming off a final-round surge to win the Memorial the week before last. "I figured just keep doing the same things: shape the ball in the different directions that we need to."

Plus, he kept the pressure off himself by making such good lag putts that he rarely had to do more than tap in for par. "I was trying to get the speed right and have kick-ins," he said. "I did that all day today. The only [short] putt I missed was at 3, and that was it. I really putted well today."

Which is more than the other two guys in his group could say. There had been plenty of speculation about "fireworks" and "electricity" ever since the U.S. Golf Association announced that the trio would play together. For the two lefthanders, the day was a dud and a power outage.

Mickelson had to make the lonely trudge back to the tee to start over after no one found his first shot on No. 9 (logistics at Olympic dictate that the "back side" begins on the ninth hole). It was reminiscent of Woods' lost first shot of the 2003 British Open.

"I hooked it," Mickelson said. "I was trying to make sure that I hooked it into a slice wind." He was pleased that he saved bogey, but never got going. "I've got a tough challenge just to get to the weekend," he said.

Watson was worse. "I was a little off here and there," he said.

The question is whether Woods can remain as "on" as he was Thursday. "Today, he was just the old Tiger," Watson said, emphasizing the "today" part. "He has won twice this year, so he's doing pretty good."

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