Mike Kern: On the dawn patrol at the U.S. Open, with Tiger and Phil

Tiger Woods lines up a putt during the first round of the 112th U.S. Open. STUART FRANKLIN/GETTY IMAGES
Tiger Woods lines up a putt during the first round of the 112th U.S. Open. STUART FRANKLIN/GETTY IMAGES
Posted: June 15, 2012

SAN FRANCISCO — Normally, the only way to get the golf media up with the sun is to offer them a comped round at Pebble Beach. With caddies thrown in, of course. Maybe even breakfast.

But Thursday morning at the Olympic Club, a different kind of enticement had them piling into all those early shuttle buses. This time it was that 7:33 first-round pairing for your 112th U.S. Open, with Tiger Woods, Phil Mickelson and the newest major winner, Bubba Watson. Before the ESPN cameras even came on, their opening ninth hole was the spot to be. Much the same way that on Wednesday night it had been across town at AT&T Park.

Anyhow, the 449-yard par 4 was already lined from tee to green a good 30 minutes prior to the marquee threesome's scheduled start time. But who didn't want to see Martin Flores head out before that? Or was that Tommy Biershenk?

Not shockingly it was chilly, since this place is on the side of a mountain next to an ocean. At least the fog had the good sense to stay away. Watson walked down the steps from the clubhouse first, followed by the group's other lefthander, and finally Tiger. The greeting for each was loud, although it sounded slightly bigger for Tiger. Phil was all smiles. Bubba looked as if he didn't truly fit, despite that Masters green jacket. Tiger was businesslike, as usual. No chit-chat, simply polite greetings. Phil told Woods to "have a good day." Both introduced themselves to the scorer and standard-bearer who would accompany them around. "Hi, I'm Tiger."

Nice to meet you, too.

Only Tiger, batting second, found the fairway, after Mickelson hooked one way right. Bubba then leaked his pink driver into the left rough. And off they went, with the media horde in tow. Only problem was, Phil never found his ball. They think it never came down out of a tree. So he had to trudge back to the tee, after a penalty, for his third shot. From there he still made a great bogey, to match Watson, who hit his second shot some 20 yards. In what would become a pattern, Tiger carded a conventional par. It took a while to complete. Some wondered if they might already be on the dreaded slow-play clock. So much for the high profiles. Phil, by the way, did not seem amused that Watson had opted to mark his ball from what was basically rake-in distance. Rumor is that, unlike America, he's not a big fan for whatever reasons.

It soon became apparent that finding the fairway, and often the putting surface, was mostly a rumor for Phil and Bubba. Not a good thing, especially in this championship. It probably wasn't a productive sign when Mickelson also bogeyed the next hole, another par 4, after nearly shanking a short iron approach and later chunking a lob from just off the back fringe, which forced him to hole an 8-footer just to get 5. Did we mention that Tiger was wearing his new white shoes, the ones designed almost like a running shoe he fancies? So, has there been a Mars Blackmon sighting lately?

Mickelson would make five bogeys in his first eight holes, sandwiched around a birdie. Watson did his best to keep pace, by dropping strokes on four holes. He finally got a two-putt bird on the par-5 17th, just like Tiger, who was playing basically the way you're supposed to play one of these: boringly effective. He didn't give himself many realistic birdie chances, but neither did he put himself in much danger. Most relevantly, he kept it out of the long grass. His partners apparently didn't receive the memo.

Still, it was entertaining, just because. Maybe you had to be there. That way you wouldn't have needed roving reporter Andy North to tell you that Tiger ducked into a port-o-john to the side of the third tee. Or that he and Mickelson actually exchanged a few words on the third fairway, as they waited for Watson to deal with yet one more recovery situation from outside the gallery ropes. Sometimes it's about the little moments.

As someone observed, at times it looked like a pro-am, with Tiger being the only one who appeared to have a clue. There were instances when it almost bordered on the comical. And this was statistically the easier part of the course. Phil was noticeably upset with himself, particularly his driving. Watson just seemed to accept the fact that this wasn't Augusta National anymore.

On the 14th tee, coming off what turned out to be his lone bird, Mickelson tossed the ball to a teenager in the crowd. He proceeded to curve his drive into the peeps, nailing one. So he gave a ball to him as well. Which prompted another to shout out, "You can hit me next." Even Phil acknowledged the comment. Then someone else added, "Go stand in the fairway." Obviously he hadn't been taking notes.

And so it went, for 5 hours and 20 minutes, or close to an hour more than the USGA's projected time allotment. Tiger, who of course is pursuing his 15th major but first in 4 years, put himself very much in the hunt at 1-under 69. Mickelson, a record five-time runner-up in this thing, shot 76. That was still two better than the only guy who could've won a grand slam this year. Yeah, right.

It's not meant to be fun. But you don't want it to be torture, either. Unless your name is Cole Howard, who opened with an 80.

"It was a tough day when you play the way I did," Mickelson correctly observed afterward. "I just let it continue, unfortunately. I wasn't able to get it stopped."

Said Watson: "Everything was just a little off."

Which, on this stage, is more than enough to make all the difference.

At least he had a front-row seat. There were three headliners; one delivered. We've seen this before.

"Tiger was the old Tiger," Bubba noted. "That was beautiful to watch. That's what we all come to see."

The only other times Tiger — who's coming off his second win of the season, at the Memorial — was paired with Mickelson the first 2 days of a major were the 2006 PGA and the 2008 Open. He took home the trophy at each of them.

"I felt like I had control of my game all day and just stuck to my game plan and executed my game plan," said the best golfer of his era, who's still trying to convince the haters that he's the best period. "I felt very pleased with every facet of my game … which was nice."

Now he gets the chance to try to do it all over again, on Friday afternoon. It remains must-see, in prime time on the other coast. This time, you can hold those wake-up calls.

Contact Mike Kern at kernm@phillynews.com

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