The Tiger Factor

If there was any doubt about whether Tiger Woods was back and still had the ability to intimidate the field, one need only look at Thursday’s first round of the U.S. Open at the Olympic Club’s Lake Course in San Francisco, California.

All week long leading up to this first round, the pundits were wringing their hands about how hard the course was going to play. They pointed to the first six holes that had been beefed up by the 1st being converted to a 520-yard par 4 and the 247-yard, par-3 3rd. They whimpered about the 670 yard par-5 16th — although I think Bubba Watson said all they succeeded in doing was converting it to a long par 4 (preceded by the tee shot) and he didn’t understand what they were trying to do.

David Feherty said in the post-game wrap up that the setup was perfect, probably the best one in the last ten years since USGA President Mike Davis took over the reins. He said that Congressional was perfect last year too, it was just a measure of how great Rory McIlroy was playing that he won by nine shots. The rest of the field was right around par.

There is the story of some years ago about players wondering why the USGA was trying to embarrass the players with their harsh setups, to which Sandy Tatum responded, “We’re not trying to embarrass the best players in the world, we’re trying to identify them.” It sort of captured the imperious, iconoclastic approach of the USGA. And it’s been going on for a long time. Jack Nicklaus once said that when he showed up at an Open and he heard players complaining about the setup, he immediately checked them off as any threat to him.

So all of that is going on in the background. But the ante has been upped on the setup by the fact that Tiger Woods finally has control of his golf ball and is putting good again.

When you stand on the first tee knowing what the golf course has in store for you and that Tiger shot 1-under in the morning, there’s an increase in the adrenaline seep and corresponding increase in your determination and effort. All of this on a very subtle level — if it weren’t, we’d immediately fix it! — and it all inevitably leads to tension. And once again, it doesn’t take much and it kills golf swings.

For example, the top 3 players in the world were paired together in the afternoon and it wasn’t pretty: Luke Donald (+9), Rory McIlroy (+7) and Lee Westwood (+3). Donald never made a birdie, McIlroy only made one and Westwood two.

But it extended to Tiger’s group too. Needing to really amp up his game to “hang with” Tiger, Phil Mickelson got hit by a truck. He was only 6-over, but it looked worse. Not as “worse” as Bubba Watson who continued to whimper about the course, if not verbally, certainly with his body language. Phil seemed very subdued in his press conference. After losing his tee shot on the first hole in a tree, “I started off with bogey, I mean I made a pretty good bogey thereafter.  I just let it continue, unfortunately.  I wasn’t able to get it stopped.” That’s the subtlety of the tension.

But! We still have a ball game!

Second-year pro, Michael Thompson, had seven birdies on this unplayable golf course. He gave back three, but he ended up at 4-under and with a 3-shot lead over, uh, Tiger…and Graeme McDowell, Nick Watney, Justin Rose and David Toms. And at even par were Jim Furyk, Matt Kuchar and Ian Poulter.

The tournament is by no means over. The delicate way that the leaders will have to tread over the next three days as the course gets tougher still, only serves to add still more subtle layers of tension.

Unless, of course, they’re playing well and then it’s all easy. The question remains, who will it be?

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