As the year’s second major lived up to its reputation as the toughest championship of all, the former world number one mixed three birdies with two bogeys to finish the first round three behind fellow American Michael Thompson at the Olympic Club.
“I felt like I had control of my game all day. I’m really excited how I was able to execute my game plan all day today. The golf course was really quick.
“We knew the greens were going to be a little quicker, but I didn’t think they would be this firm this early in the week. So we had to make a couple of adjustments with that.”
Woods was one of just six players who broke par, ending the round tied for second with fellow Americans Nick Watney and David Toms, Britain’s Justin Rose and 2010 champion Graeme McDowell of Northern Ireland.
The little known Thompson, who tied for 29th in his only previous U.S. Open appearance in 2008, upstaged the game’s biggest names by carding a seven-birdie 66 on the challenging, hilly Lake Course.
Though Thompson bogeyed three of the first six holes – a stretch widely regarded as the most difficult start in the majors – he then surged up the leaderboard with six birdies in bright sunshine to take control of the tournament.
“This is one of my favourite golf courses, so I’ve got good feelings coming in here,” said the 27-year-old Thompson, who booked his place in this week’s field via sectional qualifying.
“I just got the putter hot today. I got kind of a wake-up call on the first hole, I missed my par putt because I didn’t realise the greens were that fast. From then on, I was just trying to flow.”
American world number six Matt Kuchar, 2003 U.S. Open champion Jim Furyk, Swede Robert Karlsson and Britain’s Ian Poulter were among a group of eight locked on 70.
Most of the players struggled on the tight fairways and surprisingly quick greens, Phil Mickelson carding a 76, defending champion Rory McIlroy a 77, Masters champion Bubba Watson a 78 and world number one Luke Donald a nine-bogey 79.
“I didn’t play very well,” Mickelson said after a round including seven bogeys, one birdie and a lost ball with his opening tee shot, a wild hook into trees. “It was a tough day when you play it the way I did.”
McIlroy, who romped to victory by eight shots in last year’s U.S. Open at Congressional, paid the price for hitting only seven of 14 fairways.
“It’s just so tough here if you put yourself out of position at all,” the 23-year-old said. “When you’re trying to play catch-up on this golf course it’s very hard.
“I was able to make only one birdie out there today. I need to try to make more tomorrow and limit the mistakes.”
Left-hander Watson never recovered from four bogeys in his first eight holes but was hugely impressed by Woods.
“That was the old Tiger,” he gushed. “That was beautiful to watch. That’s what we all want to watch and that was awesome to see him strike the ball look. He made a couple (of) bogeys but under par on this golf course is pretty good.”
Woods, who won the most recent of his 14 major titles at the 2008 U.S. Open, oozed confidence throughout his round as he outshone playing partners Mickelson and Watson in front of huge galleries.
He was rock solid as he parred his first five holes after teeing off at the ninth, bogeyed the 14th after his tee shot ended up in thick rough but recovered with a two-putt birdie at the par-five 17th.
Woods then knocked in birdie putts from 10 and 30 feet at the fourth and fifth to move within a stroke of the lead before making his only other stumble, a bogey at the par-four sixth.
“This golf course, it’s so demanding and if you’re off your game just a little bit, you’re going to pay the price,” said Woods, who completed his U.S. Open preparation with his 73rd PGA Tour victory at the Memorial tournament two weeks ago in Ohio.
“I felt very pleased with every facet of my game today and I stayed very patient out there.”
Chinese teenager Andy Zhang, at 14 the youngest competitor at a U.S. Open since 1945 and possibly of all time, opened with a 79 while 2008 Masters champion Trevor Immelman of South Africa battled to an 80.