The American left-hander, who has been a runner-up in his national championship a record six times, ground out an even-par 70 in the opening round at Pinehurst Resort to finish two strokes off the early pace.
"I drove it great," admitted the five-times major winner, whose most recent runner-up finish at the US Open came last year at Merion.
"Every time I hit the driver, I hit the fairway. I putted OK but didn't make the ones you need to make to have a good round."
American Kevin Na opened with a 68 on Pinehurst's fabled No.2 Course where danger lurked on virtually every hole because of the unique turtle-back greens.
"I got off to a great start," Na said after mixing an eagle at the par-five fifth with three birdies and three bogeys on an increasingly firm and fast-running layout. "I had an early tee time and I was able to capitalise on that. A long way to go and I'm obviously at two-under par right now but, at the end of the tournament, I think even par is going to win this championship."
Brent Snedeker carded a 69. "I don't know how I made six birdies today, you're not going to have that very often," he said. "I got off to a great start."