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U.S. Open 2012: Tiger Woods, Phil Mickelson Deliver Early Drama

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Rory McIlroy, of Northern Ireland, hits a shot on the fifth hole during a practice round for the U.S. Open Championship golf tournament Wednesday, June 13, 2012, at The Olympic Club in San Francisco. (AP Photo/Eric Risberg) link photo-hub-origin.web.aol.com
Rory McIlroy, of Northern Ireland, hits a shot on the fifth hole during a practice round for the U.S. Open Championship golf tournament Wednesday, June 13, 2012, at The Olympic Club in San Francisco. (AP Photo/Eric Risberg) link photo-hub-origin.web.aol.com

SAN FRANCISCO -- Tiger Woods and Phil Mickelson delivered an entertaining start to the U.S. Open in two very different ways.

Woods was working his way around The Olympic Club with ease Thursday, opening with five straight pars on the unleveled Lake Course before a bogey on the par-4 14th dropped him to 1 over. Mickelson, meanwhile, bogeyed three straight holes - losing his ball in the trees on his first tee shot - until he followed with a par and a birdie.

Kevin Na was leading at 3 under through six. Four others were two shots back.

With a light fog blanketing the grounds and San Francisco's steep hills in the backdrop, Woods kept his drives in the tight, twisting fairways and reached all but the one green in regulation.

Keeping it straight might the key for everybody in the field.

Shane Bertsch, Martin Flores and Tommy Biershenk teed off in the first group just after 7 a.m. All three landed in the rough on the par-4 ninth - perhaps an indication of what awaited at "golf's toughest test." They received mild applause from the hundreds of fans lining the fairways all the way to the green 449 yards away.

The gallery ballooned when Woods, Mickelson and Masters champion Bubba Watson teed off shortly after them. While the noise echoed throughout the grounds, the results from the marquee group weren't much better.

Mickelson hooked his tee shot way right and the towering cypress trees gobbled it. After a five-minute search for the ball, Mickelson teed off again, driving it into the fairway and saving bogey with a deft approach and a precise putt from about 15 feet.

Watson's drive buried in the rough on the left and he settled for bogey. He was 3 over through seven.

Woods, not always straight off the tee, hammered his driver on his first shot and landed the ball in the middle of the fairway and down the sloping hill. The only downside through the first five holes for the 14-time major champion: he two putted each time.

Woods' wayward approach on the 14th landed on the back of the tiny green and bounced near the barrier in the deep rough. He missed a 10-foot par putt right.

And so the chase begins.

This marks the first time Woods and Mickelson are paired in the Open since Torrey Pines four years ago. That's when the U.S. Golf Association grouped players off the world ranking, and also the last time Woods won a major.

Defending champion Rory McIlroy, top-ranked Luke Donald and Lee Westwood had an afternoon start.

The close proximity of the ninth tee to the clubhouse prompted the USGA to send players off holes No. 1 and No. 9 - instead of the usual 10th - during the first two rounds. The ninth fairway bends to the right, and the turf slopes strongly to the left toward Lake Merced.

The early groups showed how tough this year's championship might be.

McIlroy shattered U.S. Open records last year at rain-softened Congressional when he reached double figures under par before he even turned in his second-round scorecard. He finished at 268 to break the 72-hole mark by four shots, and his 16-under par was four better than Woods at Pebble Beach in 2000.

USGA executive director Mike Davis has practically guaranteed this year will be tougher, although more from the expected dry weather in Northern California than anything else, creating firm and fast greens already hard enough to reach with the tree-lined fairways and unleveled lies.

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Follow Antonio Gonzalez at: www.twitter.com/agonzalezAP

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