SAN DIEGO, CA—The focus fell to golf’s biggest stars, with fans crammed together a dozen deep in spots at Torrey Pines to see how Tiger Woods dealt with a tender knee and whether Phil Mickelson could overcome so much U.S. Open heartache in his hometown.
The lead belonged to the obscure.
Kevin Streelman and Justin Hicks, neither among the top 600 in the world ranking, each shot 3-under 68 on Thursday to borrow the spotlight and take a one-shot lead in the opening round of a U.S. Open that showed a slightly softer side.
They were among 11 players who broke par at Torrey Pines, after only two were in red numbers after the first round last year.
Woods and Mickelson were not among them, then or now.
The world’s No. 1 player grimaced and pursed his lips, unable to disguise his pain. No, it wasn’t his left knee that had cartilage cleaned out during a surgery two months ago. It was a three-putt to close out his 1-over 72, leaving him four shots out of the lead and one shot behind Mickelson, who shot 71 without a driver in the bag.
Woods expected soreness in his knee. He didn’t expect his first double bogey in 416 holes.
“To make two double bogeys and a three-putt and only be four back, that’s a great position to be in, because I know I can clean that up tomorrow,” Woods said after his first competitive round since the Masters.
Streelman might not be a household name, but Woods knows him.
The 29-year-old PGA Tour rookie is known best for getting into the Buick Invitational as the third alternate in January and playing with Woods in the final group on the weekend. He was No. 1,354 in the world back then, all the way up to No. 608 now.
But he was back in his glory Thursday, saving par from everywhere and making enough birdies for a dream start to this major.
“It’s been an incredible run on the PGA Tour thus far,” he said. “I don’t think what happened today has quite sunk in.”
Hicks played at the Buick Invitational, too—but it wasn’t the same guy whose name was atop the leaderboard of the U.S. Open. Turns out there’s another Justin Hicks, a club pro in San Diego, who qualified for the PGA Tour event. He showed up in the gallery to watch Justin Hicks, the Nationwide Tour player, fire off six birdies on his opening nine and hold it together.
“A lot of weird stuff going on out there today,” Hicks said.
That includes the star pairing of Woods and Mickelson that brought enormous crowds outside the ropes and more than 100 media inside the ropes. Woods made his first double bogey since September, worked his way onto the leaderboard and then made another.
Mickelson, the guy who carried two drivers in his bag at the Masters when he won his first major, didn’t have any in his bag for the U.S. Open. He still managed to reach both par 5s on the back in two, both times settling for birdie on his way to a 71.
“I felt like with the fairways being firm like they were today, all I needed was a 3-wood,” Mickelson said.
Stranger still was the eclectic mix of players who managed to break par.
Hicks is No. 722 in the world ranking, Streelman No. 608. Right behind them was Eric Axley (No. 503), who has bittersweet memories of this place. His caddie, Steve DuPlantis, was killed by a car while crossing the street at the Buick Invitational. He shot 69 and was tied with Stuart Appleby, Rocco Mediate and former U.S. Open champion Geoff Ogilvy.
Playing in his fifth U.S. Open, it was the first time Ogilvy had broken par.
Two-time U.S. Open champion Ernie Els was in the group at 70, although he stumbled slightly coming in. Someone mentioned that it was his best golf in a U.S. Open in three years.
“But saying that, it’s been virtually impossible to break par the last few U.S. Opens,” Els said. “I haven’t shot an under-par score since TPC. So that means I’m doing something right.”
Not everyone did.
Defending champion Angel Cabrera didn’t make birdie until the 13th hole and shot 79. Sergio Garcia, hopeful his victory in The Players Championship would carry him toward that first major, shot 41 on the front and salvaged a 76. Twenty players failed to break 80.
Woods and Mickelson each looked like they could have gone either way, and both wound up in the hunt.
Woods often talks about getting back into the flow after a long layoff, and that didn’t take long. He hooked his opening tee shot, chopped out of the rough, then hit a wedge that bounded over the green, leading to double bogey and plenty of murmurs.
“Getting into the flow of the round, it helps when you hit six shots on the first hole,” he said.
It was his first double bogey since the opening round of the BMW Championship last September.
“I figured you’re going to make bogeys out here,” Woods said. “I just happened to make two on the very first hole.”
The plan was to get back to par, which is where everyone wants to be at a U.S. Open, and Woods got there with a 5-iron from a fairway bunker to two feet on the tough fourth hole along the bluffs, a tee shot that slowly rolled down the ridge to five feet on the par-3 eighth, and two powerful swings on the 612-yard ninth to the collar of a bunker, from where he chipped to three feet for birdie.
As for the knee?
There was no question it was hurting, especially when he took a huge cut from the rough on No. 12 and went after his tee shot on the 18th hole, a drive so long and straight that he had only 7-iron for his second shot.
“It’s a little sore” was about all Woods offered after his round, adding that he felt similar pain during his practice rounds.
But he was back to playing golf, continuing his pursuit of the 18 professional majors won by Jack Nicklaus, and what really made him sore was dropping shots with careless mistakes.
The worst came on the 14th, when he was just short of the green in two and stubbed a pitch that didn’t clear the collar of thick rough framing a bunker. That double bogey put him over par, and he never got it back.
“Those two 6s, I didn’t take care of both par 5s on the back nine,” Woods said, going over his round. “As I said, plenty of holes to go. We’re all going to make mistakes out here.”
Mickelson made his share, starting with a three-putt bogey on No. 5 for the first of three straight bogeys.
He was four behind Woods through 12 holes, tied with him two holes later after a two-putt birdie on the 13th and a beautiful approach to three feet on the 14th. Each birdied revved up the gallery even more, the cheers evenly divided for Woods, a six-time winner of the Buick Invitational, and Mickelson, who grew up in San Diego.
“It was pretty interesting to tee off at 8 o’clock and have this many people out here,” Mickelson said.
They saw just about everything but the guys leading the tournament.