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Tiger Woods takes patient path to contention in U.S. Open

Tiger Woods Phil Mickelson’s caddie Jim Mackay share lighter moment as they stride away from 18th hole. | Paul Kitagaki

Tiger Woods and Phil Mickelson’s caddie, Jim Mackay, share a lighter moment as they stride away from the 18th hole. | Paul Kitagaki Jr.~AP

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Updated: July 16, 2012 6:43AM

SAN FRANCISCO — Maybe it’s too early to say Tiger Woods is back. Then again, maybe not.

Even after shooting a disappointing 78, Masters champion Bubba Watson couldn’t help but grin at the tidy little 69 that Woods shot in the opening round of the U.S. Open at the Olympic Club on Thursday.

That left him tied for second with Graeme McDowell, Nick Watney, Justin Rose and David Toms, three shots behind leader Michael Thompson.

“Yeah, that was the old Tiger,’’ Watson said.” That was beautiful to watch. That’s what we all come to see. That was awesome, to see him strike the ball like he did.’’

Woods, who knows three rounds are left in the quest for his 15th major, wasn’t interested in Watson’s “old Tiger’’ remark.

“I was just trying to execute my game plan,’’ Woods said. “That was all I was trying to do. And I did that.’’

There was a new wrinkle, though, to this Old Tiger. Where Woods often used to pull out big sticks and swing out of his shoes, he hit only three drivers on Thursday and four modest fairway-wood tee shots. On seven par-fours, he hit iron, content to play longer ­approaches from the fairway.

“I stayed very patient out there,’’ Woods said. “I felt very pleased with every facet of my game.’’

Woods was the only member of the marquee threesome who held up his end of the deal. With southpaws Watson and Phil Mickelson, who shot 76, struggling, the gallery was reduced to waiting for Lefties.

“I didn’t play very well, ­obviously,’’ Mickelson said. “I’ll go out [Friday] and see if I can shoot something under par. Maybe that will get me to the weekend.’’

Watson also was feeling glum, but determined.

“It’s disappointing, starting off like this,’’ Watson said. “Just couldn’t get anything going. Never got any rhythm. Everything was just a little off.’’

Their first hole of the day, No. 9, set the tone for the three high-profile players. While Woods smoothed an iron into the fairway, Watson pushed his tee shot into the left rough, where he advanced his second shot only about 15 yards and made bogey.

Mickelson hooked his opening drive into the trees on the right. The ball was never found, so he went back to the tee.

“I pulled it over into the trees and it must have stayed up there,’’ Mickelson said. “Nobody ever saw it or heard it come down.’’

Up a tree? Believe it.

Watson’s toughest moment came on No. 18, where he made double-bogey by pitching from an awkward knoll to the right of the green to the awkward rough behind the green.

Woods’ consistent all-around play, and his knack for staying out of danger were his biggest attributes.

After talking this week about how difficult the first six holes were, Woods, played the first five in two-under, including back-to-back birdies on No. 4 and 5. On the fourth, he stuck an iron close. On the fifth, he rolled in a long, twisting uphill putt that took a big right turn.

While Woods, the iron man, had 230 yards into the fifth green, Watson, who never met a hot pink driver he didn’t like, was 80 yards closer.

“In the practice rounds I hit more woods off the tees because the ball wasn’t chasing as much,’’ said Woods, hinting that more drivers and fairway-wood tee shots might be coming. “Today it was quicker and the tees were somewhat up from where we played our practice rounds. Consequently that’s 20 yards [and] 20 yards is a lot. And all of a sudden we’re in the steeper part of slopes or now we’re through doglegs. I had to make the adjustment.’’

What impressed Watson was Woods’ mastery of his swing: “He hit every shot shape he was trying to hit. I didn’t see any bad swings. He hit every shot. He shaped it the way he wanted to shape it. He played pretty good.’’

“Today,’’ Woods said, “was basically how I have been hitting it.’’

If that continues, his 15th major isn’t the only championship that will be in his sights.

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