SAN FRANCISCO — The first round of the U.S. Open had an upside-down feel to much of it.
The leader at 4-under 66, Michael Thompson, is playing his first Open as a pro and confessed to being "a little nervous … once all those cameras showed up.''
Meanwhile, many of the big names struggled. Phil Mickelson matched his worst opening round in a U.S. Open, 76. Masters champion Bubba Watson chopped his way through the rough to 78. Luke Donald, No. 1 in the world, made no birdies and shot 79. Rory McIlroy, the defending champion and No. 2 in the world, shot 77. No. 3 Lee Westwood was 4 over through six holes and rallied for 73. The top three in the world rankings combined for three birdies.
One thing that made sense? Tiger Woods.
As Thompson strung together four birdies on the back nine at Olympic Club, Woods put on a clinic on the other side of the course on how to handle the toughest test in golf.
He was never out of position, and he kept his tee shots away from the deep, nasty rough.
With consecutive birdies late in his round, including a 35-foot putt that banged into the back of the cup on No. 5, Woods shot 1-under 69 to raise hopes that he can end a four-year drought in the majors.
"I felt like I had control of my game all day," he said. "Just stuck to my game plan — and executed my game plan."
He was vague on the details of that plan, though it surely wasn't the one followed by the others in his group, Mickelson (who hit a wild hook for his opening tee shot that was never found, presumably lost in a cypress tree) and Watson.
Thompson's game seems to work on this quirky, tree-lined course. He was runnerup in the 2007 U.S. Amateur at Olympic.
After a roller-coaster front nine that featured consecutive bogeys and holing a bunker shot for birdie on the downhill par-3 third hole, Thompson hit his stride on the back nine.
He made five consecutive 3s — three of them birdies — and closed his dream round with a 10-foot birdie putt on the short, tough 18th for the lead. Thompson took only 22 putts.
"A lot of people don't know who I am, and I'm totally okay with that because I've always been a player that just kind of hangs around," said Thompson, 27. "I don't give up very easily and I'm very proud of that. Give Tiger the spotlight. I don't care."
Woods missed only four fairways — three of them that ran off the severe slopes and into the first cut, the other into a bunker on the 256-yard seventh hole, which is where he was aiming. The only glitch was failing to get the ball closer to the hole with short irons, including the 14th when a shot bounced off the base of the grandstand.
That led to one of his two bogeys, the other at No. 6 with a poor bunker shot.
Watson was asked about his strategy of hitting his pink-painted driver. "I shot 8 over, so not very good," he said. Then a question about how he played out of the rough with short irons. "I shot 8 over, so not very good," he said.
"You could answer these yourself," he said.
Steve Marino opened with 84. Zach Johnson didn't feel he played badly until he signed for 77. Padraig Harrington thought the course allowed for good scores. But he had two four-putts and a three-putt for 74.
"It just goes to show that firm greens scare the life out of pro golfers," Harrington said.
"It shows how tough it is," Donald said. "There aren't that many opportunities out there."
Woods is coming off his second win of the year at the Memorial Tournament, but recent history left some questions.
He won Bay Hill going into the Masters, then had his worst performance as a pro at Augusta National. But Thursday?
"Today, he was just the old Tiger," Watson said, emphasizing the "today" part.
Mickelson: "He's playing really well. It was impressive."
TV: Noon, ESPN; 3 p.m, Ch. 8; 5 p.m., ESPN
Weather: High 71, no rain chance