PEBBLE BEACH, Calif. — The two best players in the world couldn't make a birdie. A dozen more got to the top of the leaderboard only to see themselves fall right back down.
The winner on Thursday at the U.S. Open was prickly Pebble Beach, the toughened-up beauty — a wind-blown course that tamed Tiger Woods and Phil Mickelson and drained the momentum from any player who dared get too far under par.
"It's survival," said Tim Clark, after shooting a 72 to finish three strokes behind clubhouse leader Shaun Micheel.
Mickelson shot 4-over-par 75 during a birdie-less morning round that included one shot onto the beach and another off the rock wall on 18 that went careening into the ocean.
Woods went through the first 15 holes without making a birdie either, and this was even though he was the only player to hit the first 10 greens in regulation. With three holes to play, he was at 1-over par, three shots behind Micheel, the 2003 PGA winner.
With a 3-under-par 69, Micheel was the only player to crack 70 and was one shot ahead of the quartet of K.J. Choi, Mike Weir, Ian Poulter and Rafael Cabrera-Bello.
Ten years ago at Pebble Beach, Woods shot 6 under in the first round on the way to shattering the U.S. Open record and winning by 15 strokes. But this is not the same course and he is not the same person. This year, the world's top-ranked player came into the U.S. Open not on a roll, but trying to round his game into shape after taking time off when sordid details of his personal life went public over the winter.
He received a nice ovation before teeing off on the par-4 first hole. His approach almost went in the hole but skidded 12 feet past, and thus began a string of eight straight pars.
He missed some opportunities — from 12, 15 and 7 feet on the first three holes — but at least he didn't go the way of some of the would-be leaders.
Weir saw how quickly Pebble could give and take away on a day with bright sunshine, temperatures in the low-60s and north winds at about 10 mph. He chipped in for birdie from the greenside rough on 16 to get to 3 under, then promptly pushed his tee shot on No. 17, part of a bogey-bogey finish that dampened an otherwise good day.
"You don't want to finish a round like that. It's never a good thing," Weir said. "But it wasn't because I was looking at the scoreboard and looking at where I am in the tournament. Because it's Thursday, and I just happened to hit a couple of poor shots."
John Rollins was tied for the lead at 2 under before he hit a dead shank from the greenside rough on 17, then left the next shot short. He made triple bogey there, then double bogey on 18 to finish at 74.
Amateur Morgan Hoffman was at even par heading into 18 — as much in contention as anyone — when he ricocheted his second shot off one of the trees in the fairway and into the water. Hit the next shot there, too, and took a 9 to finish at 75, the same as Mickelson.
By the time that fiasco ended, journeymen Hudson Swafford and Brendon de Jonge were holding the lead at 2 under with lots of work left. De Jonge, who had four holes-in-one on the Nationwide Tour, spun his third shot into the hole from 100 yards on the par-5 14th for eagle. Earlier, he had been at 3 under, but made three bogeys.
And on it went — the shaky play as much a product of the course's brittle nature and the quickly drying greens as anything the players did.
"This course, it looks like it's wide-open fairway, but in the teeing ground, in the mindset, you look right, look left, either way is very tough," Choi said. "And you can't stop in the bouncing, so you're very scared on the tee shot."
Choi had the most up-and-down round, starting bogey-double bogey but coming back with six birdies over the next 16 holes to get to red numbers.
Trying to keep the course playable, the USGA decided to water the greens before the round began. It made what could have been an impossible day merely difficult and strange — strange as seeing the widening black and blue spots on the fickle poa annua greens.
"If we didn't put the corrective water on it and got this kind of wind, then the golf course could've gotten away from us," USGA secretary Tom O'Toole said.
Mickelson ran into trouble almost everywhere he went. His tee shot on No. 17 bounced through the rough and onto the beach. Snookered behind the trees on the 18th fairway, he went for it, sending the shot careening off the rocks and into the ocean. He left a ball in a bunker on No. 4 and missed a four-foot birdie putt on No. 6. All part of a frustrating day.
"I don't believe I should have shot over par," Mickelson said. "I putted horrific. You're going to make some bogeys, going to hit a couple of bad shots here and there. But I gave myself plenty of opportunities and just couldn't get the ball in the hole."
Cabrera-Bello is making his debut at the majors. He was the first person to tee off on No. 10. No pressure there, right? The 26-year-old Spaniard opened with a birdie and briefly got to 2 under before finishing at 70.
Others who made brief stints atop the leaderboard included:
—Mikko Ilonen, who birdied his first two holes early in the morning but then began a freefall that left him at 4-over 75.
—Sweden's Robert Karlsson, who was briefly at 2 under, but hit a chip up to the eighth green that reached the crest of the hill and rolled back, only a few paces from where he started. He made bogey there, the beginning of another freefall. He shot 75.
—Soren Kjeldsen, who spent most of the morning in the lead, making three birdies over the first six holes. He went on to make four bogeys on the back and finish at 1-over 72.
—Edoardo Molinari, who got to 2 under but finished with a pair of double-bogeys to finish at 75.
Then there was Dustin Johnson, the winner of the last two AT&T National pro-ams — played at Pebble every February. He briefly got to 2 under before a four-putt on No. 14 dropped him off the leaderboard. Just as quickly, he was back in a group at 1 under with two holes to play.
He was finding out, as all these players know, that Pebble Beach in February is much different than Pebble Beach in June.
Earlier in the week, Choi said his goal was to shoot par all four days, and if he did that, he figured he'd be in pretty good shape.
After Day 1, he wasn't changing his opinion.
"Every day," he said, "even par is a good situation."