Tiger starts strong at US Open, but can he finish?

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The other part of the stir Woods generated was because of how poorly his competition played.

The top two players in the world rankings _ Luke Donald (79) and defending champion McIlroy (77) _ are closer to the cut line than the leaderboard. Same goes for the two accomplished lefties in his group, Mickelson (76) and Watson (78), not to mention third-ranked Lee Westwood (73).

The tight, twisting fairways had most of the field hacking out of rough and digging into sand for shots. Others searched for balls in the colossal cypress trees or pushed putts all over the rock-hard greens. Mickelson did all three.

Not Woods.

“It’s sort of sadistic fun,” said Justin Rose, who also shot a 69 for a share of second. “Great golf shots get rewarded. Mediocre stuff gets penalized for the most part. So I think it’s very important to stay positive out there.”

That could be crucial for Woods.

So many of his counterparts lost their cool _ or never had it _ during the first 18 holes, and one thing that seems sure to continue this week is the conditions. USGA executive director Mike Davis practically promised this 112th U.S. Open would be more difficult than last year, if for no other reason than the weather turning last year’s championship into a lower-tier PGA Tour stop.

McIlroy shattered U.S. Open records last June 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 record by four shots, and his 16-under total was four better than Woods‘ mark at Pebble Beach in 2000.

“This is one of those Opens where it’s just really hard to make birdies,” Woods said. “This is not like it was last year.”

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

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