SAN FRANCISCO - As it sometimes likes to do with upcoming US Open venues, the US Golf Association will stage the US Amateur at a course to see how the track holds up, determine what changes are required, and begin developing a setup.
Five years ago the US Amateur was held on the Lake Course at the Olympic Club, a test drive that satisfied the USGA and gave the governing body an early indication of what the 112th US Open might play like.
Perhaps unexpectedly - or maybe not - one of the best players from the 2007 Amateur has picked up right where he left off, racing out of the starting blocks with a 4-under-par 66 Thursday and building a three-stroke lead on a day that frustrated many of the world’s best players.
Tiger Woods was not among them. He shot a 69 that left him tied for second, looking confident and comfortable as he chases what would be a record-tying fourth US Open title, and his first major championship in four years.
Michael Thompson didn’t win the US Amateur in ’07. But his loss to Colt Knost in the championship match gave Thompson, by his count, 11 rounds on a course that has undergone dramatic alterations since 1998, the last time the US Open was held here.
Is it coincidence? It wasn’t lost on the 27-year-old from Birmingham, Ala.
“I think it’s a real advantage. There’s a lot of guys who haven’t seen the course since ’98, and it’s very, very different from then,’’ Thompson said. “And to be able to have that experience; you play any golf course that many times, you’re going to know where to hit it.
“I just fed off those vibes. I hit a lot of good shots, made a lot of good putts that week, and [I’m] obviously off to a great start this week.’’
Thompson, in his second year on the PGA Tour, has three career top-10 finishes in 46 starts, and is making only his third major appearance. His previous two - the Masters and US Open in 2008 - came courtesy of his runner-up finish at the ’07 Amateur.
Paired with Knost (not randomly, since the USGA sets the first- and second-round pairings, and usually does so with some thought), Thompson quickly showed that a difficult Lake Course was gettable with smart, precise play, making seven birdies.
Or, more accurately, good scores are available if you putt as well as Thompson did. He needed only 22 putts, highlighting a round where he finished in the middle of the pack in fairways hit (8 of 14) and greens in regulation (8 of 18). A hot blade can make up for quite a lot, and a bunker hole-out for birdie, which came on No. 3, doesn’t hurt, either.
“Obviously my name’s in the spotlight, but a lot of people don’t know who I am,’’ said Thompson, whose best tour finish was a tie for fourth at last year’s Travelers Championship near Hartford, when he closed with 62. “And I’m totally OK with that because I’ve always been a player that just kind of hangs around. I don’t give up very easily and I’m very proud of that. Give Tiger the spotlight. I don’t care.’’
Confidence, obviously, is not lacking. The hard part was being patient once Thompson secured his spot through sectional qualifying. How anxious was the Alabama graduate to get here? He arrived last Friday, and spent six days prepping before the bell rung.
“I’ve got nothing to lose,’’ Thompson said. “This is just a bonus in my career, and to have the opportunity to play is just a wonderful experience. And then to have it be on one of my most favorite golf courses in the world, even better.
“It was fun. I love this golf course. I’ve been looking forward to hopefully playing in this event for over two years, since the US Amateur in ’07. I just can’t be more thrilled.’’
Woods didn’t say he was thrilled, but chose a similar word after his lowest opening round in the US Open since he shot a 67 at Bethpage Black in 2002, when he won. He was tied at 69 with David Toms, Justin Rose, 2010 US Open champion Graeme McDowell, and Nick Watney, who made a double eagle on the par-5 17th hole.
Thompson has no tour wins; the five-player posse chasing him has combined for 95: Woods with 73, Toms 13, Watney and Rose four each, and McDowell one.
“I’m really excited how I was able to execute my game plan all day today and pleased with a 1-under-par round,’’ said Woods, who won the Memorial in his last start. “I know I can hit the ball this way and I know I have been hitting the golf ball this way. I’m going to need it the next three days. This golf course is only going to get faster.’’
Not a good sign for those who struggled Thursday. Woods was part of a marquee morning group that included Phil Mickelson (76) and Masters champion Bubba Watson (78). The featured threesome in the afternoon was the top three players in the world rankings, with only No. 3 Lee Westwood besting the first-round scoring average, shooting 73. Top-ranked Luke Donald shot 79 (the same score as 14-year-old Andy Zhang), while defending champion and No. 2-ranked Rory McIlroy had 77. McIlroy missed 10 greens in regulation - total - in romping to an eight-shot victory a year ago at Congressional. He missed 12 on Thursday.
“Too many times [I] just was in the wrong position off the tee or with my second shot and it makes it very difficult,’’ McIlroy said. “When you’re trying to play catch-up on this golf course it’s very hard. I was able to make one birdie out there today. I need to try to make more tomorrow and limit the mistakes.’’
Safe to say nobody - not Thompson, not Woods - will threaten McIlroy’s 16-under-par total from a year ago. Olympic won’t be that kind of pushover, something the USGA has quietly known for five years, ever since the 2007 US Amateur.