SAN FRANCISCO – Perhaps Michael Thompson is reaping some kind of cosmic payback.
When he was at Tulane in 2005, Thompson lost his personal belongings in Hurricane Katrina, and his team disbanded.
When he was fighting to make the cut at the 2008 Masters, Thompson lost his bid for low amateur when he called a penalty on himself for his ball moving a dimple on the 15th green.
When he last played The Olympic Club in 2007 at the U.S. Amateur, Thompson lost 2 and 1 in the finals to Colt Knost.
So perhaps it’s fitting that even when he made seven birdies on Thursday and posted a score three shots better than everyone else in the field at the 2012 U.S. Open, Thompson lost the spotlight to Tiger Woods.
“The way I look at it is I’ve always kind of flown under the radar,” said the 27-year-old playing his first major as a professional. “Obviously my name’s in the spotlight, but a lot of people don’t know who I am. And I’m totally okay 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.”
Thompson putted the firm and fast greens of Olympic on Thursday like a member, draining putts one after another on the back nine where he shot 4-under despite parring both par 5s.
“I mean, seems like every putt went in the hole,” he said. “I think I made five 3’s in a row, and then I was cruising.”
If Thompson seemed more familiar with the complexities of the Lake Course than anyone in the field, it’s because he has more experience than most. Reaching the finals of the 2007 U.S. Amateur here, he played extensively on a course that isn’t the same as the one many of the best players remembered from the 1998 U.S. Open.
“I think it’s a real advantage,” Thompson said. “There’s a lot of guys out on tour – especially some of the older guys – who haven’t seen the course since ’98, and it’s very, very different from then. And to be able to have that experience, I almost played, I guess 11, rounds in nine or 10 days. You play a golf course, any golf course, that many times, you’re going to know where to hit it.”
Trying to “feed off those vibes” from his past experience wasn’t too hard on Thursday. Playing beside him the first two rounds is Knost. He’s even staying in the same house in downtown San Francisco on world-famous Lombard Street – the crookedest street in the world – with the same Hickman family that hosted him during the Amateur.
And playing on the exact opposite side of the course as the marquee threesome of Woods, Phil Mickelson and Bubba Watson, the relative peace and anonymity of their round was eerily reminiscent of the low-key Amateur.
“It looked like they probably had 20,000 people watching their group,” Thompson said. “And I think we might have had a couple hundred.”
That attention shifted a little as Thompson kept making birdies and putting some distance between himself and the field.
“Got a little nervous there once all those cameras showed up,” he said of the media that descended on his group late in the round. “It’s always a little bit of an adjustment. In that sense, I kind of wish I was Phil or Tiger, because you get the cameras from the beginning. But I really held it together.”
Poise comes naturally to Thompson. With a chance to be the only amateur to make the cut in the 2008 Masters, he called a penalty on himself when his ball moved slightly as he addressed a 15-foot birdie putt. He shrugged it off as part of golf, but playing partner Ben Crenshaw wouldn’t let him get away with that.
“Don’t dismiss lightly what he did out there,” Crenshaw said. “He’s a true gentleman.”
Two months later, Thompson tied for 29th in the U.S. Open at Torrey Pines and received the low amateur medal.
The stakes are obviously higher this week as a professional, but he’s determined to treat it the same way.
“This is my third major now,” he said. “I got to play two as an amateur, where basically you have no expectations. There’s no real pressure on you playing as an amateur, because you have nothing to lose. I kind of just try to go in with the same attitude. I’ve got nothing to lose. This is just a bonus in my career. I’m not guaranteed into all the majors as a professional. And to be able to have the opportunity to play is just a wonderful experience.”
But Thompson has banked plenty of lessons that could serve him well trying to fend off nerves, Woods and the rest of the field for the next three days at Olympic. He posted two top-five finishes his rookie season on tour, even leading heading into the final round of last year’s McGladrey Classic at Sea Island.
“I can refer to a lot of past memories, playing in the Masters as an amateur, playing in the U.S. Open at Torrey Pines as an amateur,” he said. “I can look back on when I had the lead at McGladrey last year, when I was tied for the lead at the Canadian Open last year.”
Can he hang around and get the ultimate payback with a U.S. Open trophy?
“I’m going to go out and play my game,” he said. “If I go out and putt the way I did today, I’ll be in contention.”