SAN FRANCISCO – Tiger Woods is back to twirling his clubs at a major instead of kicking them.
The way he methodically moved around a quirky course with uneven lies, tight fairways and tiny greens in the opening round of the U.S. Open brought back memories of the player who won 14 major championships rather than the foul-mouthed one booting irons all over Augusta National during four rotten rounds at the Masters in April.
Not that anybody should be surprised by what Woods does on a golf course anymore.
Since he somehow hobbled to his last major four years ago down the California coast, his name has not appeared on the leaderboard at a grand slam very often, and almost never following the first round.
So when Woods holed back-to-back birdies late in his round Thursday to close at 1-under 69, he raised expectations that he can finally end that four-year drought in the majors. He's three strokes behind little-known leader Michael Thompson and tied with four others in second.
"I was able to put it together in a major championship," Woods said. "I'm going to need it the next three days."
A lot depends on which version of the 36-year-old Woods shows up.
Will it be the one who never broke par and had his worst performance as a pro at Augusta National two months ago? The one who was whipped by Phil Mickelson in the final round at Pebble Beach in February and withdrew from Doral with a sore left Achilles tendon?
Or will it be the Woods who overcame a four-shot deficit going into the final round at Memorial two weeks ago, who won by five at Arnold Palmer's tournament at Bay Hill, and posted a career-best final round of 62 to put a scare into Rory McIlroy at PGA National?
It will need to be the latter if he's to add the one thing missing from his comeback: a major victory.
Woods racked up 14 of those and once seem assured of shattering the record of 18 set by Jack Nicklaus. Since he won a 19-hole playoff against Rocco Mediate on a bum knee at Torrey Pines in 2008, and then wrecked his Cadillac Escalade Thanksgiving night in 2009, he has come up empty every time on golf's biggest stage.
That's in part why his opening round at The Olympic Club created so much buzz.
Woods was in complete control of his game, finding fairways, sticking greens and avoiding the thick rough and towering trees that line the course built on the side of a hill that separates the Pacific Ocean from Lake Merced. He opened with five straight pars until his approach on the par-4 14th bounced off the tiny green and into the rough, forcing him to settle for bogey.
Two of his three birdies came late in his round, including a 35-foot putt that banged into the back of the cup on No. 5. The roars returned and so did the look — and those trademark twirling clubs after swings — for 18 holes of the toughest test in golf.
"That was the old Tiger," said playing partner Bubba Watson. "That was beautiful to watch."
The other part of the stir Woods generated was because of how poorly his competition played.
The top two players in the world rankings — Luke Donald (79) and defending champion McIlroy (77) — are closer to the cut line than the leaderboard. Same goes for the two accomplished lefties in his group, Mickelson (76) and Watson (78), not to mention third-ranked Lee Westwood (73).
The tight, twisting fairways had most of the field hacking out of rough and digging into sand for shots. Others searched for balls in the colossal cypress trees or pushed putts all over the rock-hard greens. Mickelson did all three.
"It's sort of sadistic fun," said Justin Rose, who also shot a 69 for a share of second. "Great golf shots get rewarded. Mediocre stuff gets penalized for the most part. So I think it's very important to stay positive out there."
That could be crucial for Woods.
So many of his counterparts lost their cool — or never had it — during the first 18 holes, and one thing that seems sure to continue this week is the conditions. USGA executive director Mike Davis practically promised this 112th U.S. Open would be more difficult than last year, if for no other reason than the weather turning last year's championship into a lower-tier PGA Tour stop.
McIlroy shattered U.S. Open records last June at rain-softened Congressional when he reached double figures under par before he even turned in his second-round scorecard. He finished at 268 to break the 72-hole record by four shots, and his 16-under total was four better than Woods' mark at Pebble Beach in 2000.
"This is one of those Opens where it's just really hard to make birdies," Woods said. "This is not like it was last year."
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