SAN FRANCISCO – What goes up must come down.
That’s the theory, anyway.
But Phil Mickelson can be excused for not buying it.
Mickelson on Thursday drove his first tee shot into the trees hugging the right side of the No. 9 fairway at the U.S. Open. He never found it – either the ball, or his game.
“In the hole!” came the inevitable yell from the gallery as Mickelson launched his drive into the branch campus of the Olympic Club.
In the hole?
In the tank is more like it. Mickelson finished with a 6-over-par 76, his highest first-round score in 22 U.S. Open appearances.
“It was,” Mickelson concluded, “a tough day.”
Just not as tough as the day endured by 2012 Masters champion Bubba Watson, Mickelson’s colleague in the USGA-arranged super group designed to stoke a made-for-TV rivalry between Mickelson and Tiger Woods.
“I’ve got the best seat in the house,” Watson wrote via Twitter, about 20 minutes before he began play on the ninth tee of the Olympic Club’s Lake Course.
It turned out the house put Watson on his seat.
“The course beat me up today,” he said after scoring an 8-over 78, the second-worst first-round number a reigning Masters champion has carded in an U.S. Open.
“It’s winning,” Watson continued. “It’s beating me up right now.”
With Mickelson and fellow left-hander Watson scrambling to make the cut today, the Open’s second helping of the BLT combo – Bubba, Lefty and Tiger – will find Woods, once again, dominating the golf universe.
On Thursday, a morning the fairways turned fast and the greens showed up with springs, Woods answered a challenge that appealed to his reverence for difficult golf conditions: The harder they are, the sharper he is.
“That was the old Tiger,” said Watson. “That was beautiful to watch. That was what we all want to watch.”
That Woods still commands such an attentive audience, four years since his last major victory, plays nicely into the underdog mindset that is first-round leader Michael Thompson.
The University of Alabama product is a self-described Christian and Eagle Scout, who has the quaint manner of a Southern gentleman. (He described the restaurant dinner he was planning to share with his wife Thursday as “a date.”)
A sectional qualifier who shot the round of his life – he finished with a 4-under par 66 – Thompson revels in the fact that his presence atop the leaderboard is accompanied by a two-word question: Who’s he?
“The way I look at it is I’ve always kind of flown under of the radar,” Thompson said. “Obviously, my name is 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 who just kind of hangs around.
“Give Tiger the spotlight. I don’t care.”
In terms of time, Thompson’s group on Thursday teed off within four minutes of Woods, Mickelson and Watson. In terms of golf geography, Thompson’s group was on the dark side of the moon.
At 7:33 a.m., the BLT trio began play at No. 9.
At 7:37 a.m., Thompson, Colt Knost and Steve Marino started at No. 1.
“Very different,” Thompson called the atmosphere between his group and the Three Dogleg Knights. “It looked like they probably had 20,000 people watching their group. And I think we might have had a couple of hundred.
“I’ve got a bunch of family here; it was nice to play well in front of family and friends, but also just to hear them cheering and screaming and enjoying themselves.”
A first round that began with a defiant refutation of a long-honored physics principle – what goes up must come down – also included a debunking of elementary math.
When you are swinging a club in front of family and friends, and swinging the way Michael Thompson did in the first round, 200 is more than 20,000.