SAN FRANCISCO (AP) — The low hooking iron that curled up near the flagstick on the fourth hole was reminiscent of something, sure. So, too, was the pair of iron shots that collectively traveled 498 yards on the next hole, setting up a 35-foot putt that slam dunked into the cup for rare back-to-back birdies on the toughest stretch of a very tough Olympic Club course.
We’ve seen it before, so many times that no matter what Tiger Woods does on a golf course, nothing totally surprises. Not the shots that hit fairway after fairway while his playing partners were hacking it out of the rough and into the trees, certainly not the 69 that Woods posted Thursday in the first round of the U.S. Open.
It sure seemed like the Tiger we once knew, with thousands cheering every shot as Woods methodically plotted his way around Olympic. Bubba Watson proclaimed it as much, and since he’s the Masters champion and was playing with Woods, his opinion counts for something.
“That was the old Tiger,” Watson said. “That was beautiful to watch.”
On the second point, we can all agree. Woods was nearly perfect on a brilliant day in San Francisco, where his game pretty much matched the weather. The swing may look a little different than before, but any of the 33,500 or so who strained to watch the featured pairing of Woods, Watson and Phil Mickelson had to feel as if they were watching something beautiful in the making.
But this wasn’t the old Tiger Woods. That guy is long gone, last seen down the coast of California somehow finding a way to win an Open on one leg while his wife and toddler daughter waited with hugs of congratulations.
The new Tiger travels lighter and walks more carefully after four surgeries on his knees. He’s got a tendency to miss short putts, and at times he still struggles to find the psyche that used to intimidate his opponents before they ever stepped to the first tee.
But if Woods proved anything in an opening round felt all the way from the locker room to the driving range, it’s that the new Tiger is still better on any given day than anyone playing against him.
Certainly better than his playing partners, who couldn’t make sense of the sloping fairways, tiny greens and thick rough on the Lake course at Olympic. Mickelson never found his first tee shot after hitting it into one of the towering cypress trees that line the fairways, and shot a 76. Watson was even worse, insisting on banging his driver off nearly every tee and paying the price in wildness with a fat 78.
“I know I can hit the ball this way and I know I have been hitting the golf ball this way,” Woods said. “And I was able to put it together in a major championship.”
The last point can’t be emphasized enough because the majors mean everything to Woods. They always have, since he was a kid pasting the record of Jack Nicklaus on his bedroom wall so he would have a daily reminder of what to shoot for.
He’s got 14 of them so far, but it’s been four years and 15 majors since he won the Open at Torrey Pines, the longest drought of his career. He’s 36 now, and if he is to catch or surpass the record of 18 majors held by Nicklaus he needs to start picking off a major here and there.
“Second best player in the history of golf, after Jack,” said Stephen Ames, who played in the group behind Woods.
If Woods keeps hitting the kind of shots he hit on Thursday, Ames might have to change his rankings.
The driver largely stayed in the bag, used only on three holes. No need to pull out the big club when Woods can play holes the way he did on the brutal fifth, when he hit 2-iron off the tee and followed it with a 4-iron from about 230 yards that somehow came to a rest on the back left of the green for a birdie putt he canned.
He was in control all the way, never really missing a fairway on a course and in a tournament where keeping it in the short grass is crucial. Huge crowds watched, but Watson probably had the best view. Even as he struggled, he chatted with Woods and marveled at what he was doing.
“He hit every shot shape he was trying to hit. I didn’t see any bad swings. I didn’t see any bad shot really,” Watson said. “He hit every shot; he shaped it the way he wanted to shape it. He played pretty good.”
That may not happen over 72 holes, but this was the one round Woods badly needed, if only as a confidence builder. Position and patience mean everything in a U.S. Open and Woods is just three shots back after a round during which he showed great restraint. He didn’t try to keep up with tee shots by Watson that were sometimes 80 yards past him.
By now his life and game have been dissected so many times, it’s no longer interesting or fun. Far more fun is watching him hit the kind of shots that only Woods can hit, and excite crowds the way only Woods can do.
He did both on this day, proving at least one thing:
The new Tiger Woods is pretty good, too.
Tim Dahberg is a national sports columnist for The Associated Press. Write to him at tdahlberg(at)ap.org or http://twitter.com/timdahlberg