Woods makes par a good score in opening-round 71

OAKMONT, Pa. -- Standing over a wad of rough that obscured a Nike-swooshed golf ball, Stevie Williams checked his yardage book and mumbled some information to his boss.

"I can carry it," Tiger Woods replied, crisp and confident.

Woods had nuked a 330-yard drive right of center on the 18th hole at Oakmont Country Club, leaving himself about 155 yards to the center of the green. The question was whether Woods could rip through the rough cleanly enough to get his ball up to an elevated green.

After a savage downswing gashed out a chunk of Pennsylvania real estate, Woods dropped a quiet but utterly sincere f-bomb at the result. Turns out he couldn't carry it after all. The ball ingloriously landed 15 yards short of the green, in some more thick grass.

Score one for Oakmont in this battle of Man vs. Beast. Or, perhaps more accurately, Superman vs. Megabeast.

But Woods would get in the last lick. He deftly scooped the ball out of the rough with his wedge, depositing it 24 inches from the cup, then tapped in for par.

Thus the first round of this match between the world's greatest golfer and what some people assert is the world's toughest golf course ended in a hard-fought draw. Tiger Woods shot a 1-over 71. In the four most recent U.S. Opens played at Oakmont, that would have been level par.

And if you earned a draw with Oakmont on Thursday, you actually won. Woods is tied for fifth place after 18 holes.

"Hey, on this golf course, it's fine," Woods said when his five hours of heavy lifting were done. "It's right there. You've just got to keep hanging in there."

The scary thing for the guys in spikes (both metal and soft) is that Thursday was the easy day at Oakmont. A deluge the night before slowed the greens down from airport runway speed -- 10 days ago they were "about a foot faster than they are right now," Woods said -- and the pin placements were rather benevolent by sadistic USGA standards.

"They could've made it a complete train wreck out there," noted Rory Sabbatini, who shot 73. "But then we'd be finishing Thursday's round on Sunday."

As it is, Thursday's round was the kinder, gentler prelude to what should be a weekend bloodbath. The greens will firm back up. The pins will go into hiding. The scores will skyrocket -- and only two players broke par on Thursday.

"Any confidence you have, on this course, will quickly evaporate," Sabbatini said. "The course is going to wreak havoc all week. You can hit good shots and get bad results, or you can hit bad shots and get horrible results."

Sabbatini might sound like a prophet of doom, but the Thursday numbers back him up. By the time it was over, 58 percent of the field had recorded at least one double bogey or worse (91 of 156) -- and remember, this is a course without any water. Only one hole was playing under par -- and that just barely: the 609-yard par-5 fourth was completed in an average of 4.97 strokes.

So any birdie was considered a great birdie, any par a good par, and even a few bogeys were not bad bogeys. That's how you end up with almost nobody shooting in the 60s.

"It's probably perfect for Thursday, isn't it?" asked Woods' playing partner and defending U.S. Open champion Geoff Ogilvy, who shot 71 as well. "Two or three red numbers, then they're all gone by Friday night."

Which is why Thursday was an important day for positioning. Plenty of guys will be playing their way out of the tournament the rest of the way, so the first round was a fine time to play your way into contention.

Woods did just that, even if it happened the hard way. And if Tiger is in position, everyone else is in trouble.

It's intriguing watching Woods when he's fully taxed. When he isn't busting out of the blocks and leaving everyone else behind. When even good shots aren't yielding birdies. When he isn't torching the par-5s (Woods played the two at Oakmont in 1-over par Thursday). When he's getting into trouble and having to work his way out of it.

"Even other difficult majors that we play, you probably are going to have one or two shots where you can take off," Woods said. "You can close your eyes and probably hit it in the fairway or on the green. It's an easy shot. On this golf course there are none. No easy birdies."

And not very many easy pars, either. Even for Woods, who spent just two holes in red numbers.

"There was some scrappy stuff in the middle [of his round], but he got out of it," Ogilvy said. "That's what the best player in the world does -- gets the best score of the day that he can."

Woods used his driver six times Thursday, opting more for irons off the tee. It was reminiscent of the iron-man display last year that won him the British Open, when Mr. Long Ball short-knocked to an easy victory.

This is 30-something Tiger, more judicious than the grip-and-rip monster we saw devour the Masters for his first major victory a decade ago.

"It was conservative today," Woods said. "That's how you normally play U.S. Opens. You don't play it aggressively."

But it was Woods' most aggressive play of the day that helped him end his round with some momentum. On the 17th tee, the fans cheered when he reached for the tiger head cover on his driver. He was going for the green on the 313-yard par-4.

Woods certainly has the length and strength for such a shot, but the landing area is uphill and roughly the size of a driveway. It was a risk.

Yet Woods dropped his tee shot softly into the throat of the green, just a few yards off and in the fairway, then chipped it close and made birdie. That was sandwiched between an 8-foot par putt on 16 and the stellar up-and-down on 18.

"Sixteen, 17 and 18 were the key to my round," Woods said, knowing that he'd done enough good work on a day when he did not have his best stuff.

Understand this: If Superman vs. Megabeast ends in a draw for three more days, Tiger Woods will be the winner -- and probably by a wide margin. Because Oakmont is going to beat everyone else.

Pat Forde is a national columnist for ESPN.com. He can be reached at ESPN4D@aol.com.