SAN FRANCISCO – Many in this week’s U.S. Open field who played the 2007 U.S. Amateur on the Olympic Club’s Lake Course don’t see great value in the experience. The course was shorter. It was tamer. Scoring-wise, it was easier.
But something about that week greatly benefited Michael Thompson, who was then at the University of Alabama. He won five matches, and ended up losing to Colt Knost in the 36-hole championship match.
Thompson remembered a lot of those feelings heading into this week. He recalled many of the safe places to miss shots. And after the opening day at the 112th U.S. Open, it is the Eagle Scout from Tucson, Ariz., who holds the outright lead after a 4-under-par 66.
Surprised? He is, and he isn’t.
“It’s better than I could have envisioned,” the second-year PGA Tour player said. “I don’t fully expect to stay at 4 under. It would be great if I was to improve on that, but this is a long week.”
One round has already been a long week for many of today’s golfing stars – excluding three-time U.S. Open winner Tiger Woods, who leads a group at 69 that includes Nick Watney and Justin Rose, and a pair of major winners in David Toms (2001 PGA) and Graeme McDowell (2010 U.S. Open).
The world’s three top-ranked golfers – No. 1 Luke Donald (79), No. 2 and defending U.S. Open champion Rory McIlory (77) and No. 3 Lee Westwood (73) – finished a collective 19-over.
Throw in a 76 from Phil Mickelson, and a 78 by reigning Masters champion Bubba Watson, and it was easy to see why this hilly layout with its small greens buffeted by changing wind gusts along the Pacific Ocean has been widely regarded as one of the hardest golf tests in the world.
Gig Harbor’s Kyle Stanley shot 73, and is tied for 39th.
Thompson, 27, actually was one of the few to find birdies at the Olympic Club. He made seven of them – four on a bogey-free back nine, where he shot a 32.
“There’s just a familiarity with the golf course,” said Thompson, who first visited the course last Friday to start his preparation. “Knowing, remembering certain spots that I have been in before – you play the course 15, 20 times, you’re going to know where to hit it and where not to.”
As good as Thompson was Thursday, he might be fighting an uphill battle against history. Only 16 men – the last being McIlroy at Congressional Country Club last year – have held the first-round lead and gone on to win the U.S. Open.
In fact, Thompson, who has carefully chosen his spots on the PGA Tour this season, making 10 cuts in 15 events, might fit the profile of the lesser-knowns who grabbed an early U.S. Open lead, only to sink back into anonymity – guys such as Mike Nicolette (1988), Nick Dougherty (2007) and Kevin Streelman and Justin Hicks (2008).
And with Woods breathing down his neck, that would be an understandable outcome for Thompson.
Woods is also familiar with Olympic, where he has logged 50-60 rounds, from his college days at Stanford. After a slow but steady start, he made hay on the grueling stretch from No. 1 to No. 6, playing them in 1-under par.
“As far as the golf course, it’s just demanding. It does wear on you because there’s no letup,” Woods said. “I played well today. I felt like I had control of my game all day and just stuck to my game plan and executed my game plan.”
The No. 1–to-No. 6 stretch has gobbled up headlines as well as strokes this week. But the hole that had many players mumbling to themselves was the one that Steve Stricker earlier in the week called a “par 6” – the 16th, which played 660 yards Thursday into wind.
Nobody on the first page of the leaderboard birdied it.
“Missing the fairway there off the tee you’re struggling to make par,” Toms firstname.lastname@example.org 253-597-8442 blogs.thenewstribune.com/golf @ManyHatsMilles