SAN FRANCISCO -- This was an ideal day to remember what Tiger Woods means to golf, how both his ability and his analytical mind are unique in his era of the game and that no one, present or soon to arrive, can duplicate what he offers.
This was a crisp, fog-lifting morning at Olympic Club in the U.S. Open to see him clearly, to remember what he looked like in his prime and how much richer, in brains and craft, his sport will be if he can find his way back.
Woods's day was just a first-round one-under-par 69. The next three days, given his recent years, could produce anything from wonderful to wheels-off again. But this was exactly the start he wanted. His day was almost devoid of drama because he struck the ball so solidly, took his scandalous driver out of the bag only three times and strategized his way around this canted, constantly curving track so cleverly -- working his ball left-to-right or the opposite on nearly every shot -- that Woods seldom played a troubled shot.
As Woods explained, just as Jack Nicklaus might have 30 years ago, everybody who's ever won the Open at Olympic had been able to "to shape the ball in either direction." Others might make the same point. But Woods then went through the flight-path patterns of Scott Simpson, Lee Janzen, Billy Casper and even Jack Fleck in his '54 playoff upset of Ben Hogan.
Three times in golf's history, the best talent and the best all-around golf mind have resided in the same man - Bobby Jones, Nicklaus and Woods. Those who don't want to see more, much more, of what Woods, 36, has left to give the golf world, surely harbor a severe or perverse agenda.
"I was reading a long time ago about (how) Arnold (Palmer) liked to draw the ball, but he learned how to cut it just for the Open (here in '66). He did all right. He had a seven-shot lead with nine to go," said Woods. Then, in passing, Woods mentioned how many tournaments, and majors, the eventual '66 winner, Billy Casper, had won.
This may not be the week when Woods wins his 15th major. But it was a day when you could see the sharp outlines of that event. When he's got himself sorted out, on and off the course, Tiger is different, much different, from all the others. On Thursday, the U.S. Golf Association tried to create a made-for-TV supergroup to showcase the sport and get some mileage out of Woods, at least for two days, even if he should follow his win at the Memorial two weeks ago with a crash-and-burn similar to his T-40 finish at the Masters after he'd just won Palmer's Orlando invitational this spring.
All that the Phil Mickelson, Bubba Watson and Woods trio demonstrated was that, even in the best of company, Tiger is a one-off. Phil and Bubba decided to wear all black. Like hit men? Pallbearers? Did they hope to look intimidating -- or, at least, not intimidated?
The funeral turned out to be theirs. From the moment his wild-hook drive off the first tee was lost high up in a cypress tree, Mickelson was a lost-swing mess, shooting a six-over-par 76. "A tough day when you play it the way I did," he said. "I wasn't able to get it stopped."
Watson was worse. A self-taught bomber, he has all the multi-shaped shots Olympic demands. The only way to keep the ball on many fairways and greens here is to draw or fade it into the target so that the ball's flight counteracts the steep slope of the ground when the ball lands. But Bubba also knows the dreaded double cross when his ball finds the way to San Jose.
"That golf course is too tough for me," Watson said. "It's a lot better than I am."
There are horses for courses, like Bubba for wide-open Augusta National. But the greatest golf thoroughbreds love the game so deeply and are so gifted that they learn all the shots for all the courses. That's Woods.
"Tiger was that old Tiger," said Watson. "That was beautiful to watch."
"He struck it really well, had really solid control of his flight, trajectory. It was impressive," said Mickelson, who beat Woods by 11 head-to-head on Sunday in his Pebble Beach win in February. After his withdrawal at the Memorial, Phil's game is now officially on report.
Both Watson and Mickelson are creative, imaginative and combine power and touch. But so does Woods. And Tiger brings extra levels of discipline, analysis of technique and perspective on the whole sport.
Out of the blue this week, he discussed how Hogan wished the video camera had arrived in his era so he could "correct his mistakes faster . . . I grew up in an era of VHS. . . . These kids are now bringing iPads to the range and breaking their swing down on the V-1."
In Korea, youngsters hit balls indoors for six months. "They come out and have perfect golf swings. That's the new generation. The swings are all going to look very similar, with power," Woods said. They've all been inspired by the Tiger Era and, also, by the drive to blow right past Woods.
"Yeah, there is a little bit of that," Woods said.
Nicklaus also played against generations of players who idolized, copied and wanted to surpass him. If Woods is going to pass Jack's 18 major titles, he'll need wins on courses like Olympic that demand sometimes outdated skills that he respects, and has mastered, but that young clones may neglect.
Instead of monster drives, Woods hit his low 3-wood "stingers" on many holes, using the entire width of the fairway for the inevitable sideways Olympic bounce. "That's the neat thing -- doglegs that run away from you, a big premium on shaping the ball, on game planning," said Woods. "You have to think."
Since his expensive 2010 divorce, the tests of Woods's judgment that matter now are those we watch when he has a golf club in hand. Will his revamped game stand up to the pressure of a major? Can it withstand the extra internal pressures to win that Woods may feel? He won't be sharing those emotions unless he wins, we can be sure, and maybe not even then.
On Thursday, Woods choose the perfect Open color, gray, like the San Francisco sky before the fog burns off, gray like the spiritual state that's ideal for boring yourself into a par-par-par state of precise golf. And gray like the blank mind, no subconscious issues in play, when you stand over those 10-foot U.S. Open par putts.
Like Hogan, that consummate clad-in-gray U.S. Open man, Woods accented his outfit with a white hat. Tiger knows these things, the details of the game long before he was born. He knows, like Hogan, that everything he has done, and everything he may still do, will be written and remembered long after he's gone, by players who won't be born for decades.
As the sun set, Woods's name stood in second place, just three shots behind. One of those chapters may be just days away.