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Archive for Friday, June 15, 2007

Bye bye birdies

Soft course no help in opening round

June 15, 2007

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Luke Donald throws his putter after missing a birdie putt on the 13th green during the first round of the U.S. Open. Donald shot a 4-over 74 on Thursday at Oakmont Country Club in Oakmont, Pa.

Luke Donald throws his putter after missing a birdie putt on the 13th green during the first round of the U.S. Open. Donald shot a 4-over 74 on Thursday at Oakmont Country Club in Oakmont, Pa.

Phil Mickelson swings his club over his head after teeing off on the 17th hole during the first round of the U.S. Open. Mickelson shot a 4-over 74 Thursday at Oakmont Country Club.

Phil Mickelson swings his club over his head after teeing off on the 17th hole during the first round of the U.S. Open. Mickelson shot a 4-over 74 Thursday at Oakmont Country Club.

— This was not the Oakmont anyone expected to see at the U.S. Open.

Firm and fast became soft and slightly slower. Sunshine that hardened the course yielded to morning cloud cover that made it feel friendly. Thursday might have been the one day the course reputed to be the toughest in America was a pushover.

But it somehow managed to push back.

Even with nearly half an inch of rain and hole locations that showed a compassionate side of the USGA, only two players managed to break par. Nick Dougherty of England took 11 putts on the back nine for a 2-under 68, one shot ahead of Angel Cabrera of Argentina.

This did not escape Tiger Woods when he walked off the 18th green, pleased that his 71 was not any higher.

"This was as easy as it's going to play," Woods said. "And look what happened."

The only four players at par or better - Jose Maria Olazabal and Bubba Watson shot 70 - all played in the morning with only the slightest breeze and damp grass beneath their feet.

Forget about Oakmont getting stronger in the afternoon. What about the next three days?

"Unless the wind is blowing 100, it usually doesn't play hardest on Thursday," Jim Furyk said after a 71. "So I'm aware that the golf course can play much more difficult. I expected the rain helped us out a little bit today, but still the scores aren't good at all."

Dougherty was thrilled with his, considering he had never shot better than 72 in any major. And while he was honest about the condition of Oakmont, simply uttering the words made him nervous.

"I think the course is - I hate saying it - easy," Dougherty said, sounding like that might come back to haunt him. "Goodness, I shouldn't have said that. No, absolutely not. The course is barbaric."

Cabrera was one of only two players who reached 3 under, and lost a share of the lead with a bogey on the 313-yard 17th. The 16 players at 71 also included defending champion Geoff Ogilvy, Vijay Singh, former British Open champion Ben Curtis and Fred Funk, who celebrated his 51st birthday.

Woods holed a 12-foot birdie putt on the sixth hole that put him 1 under, his first time in red numbers at this major since the second round at Pinehurst No. 2 in 2005. He gave it back two holes later and never caught up to par.

"It's as easy as it's going to play, and it's still pretty hard," Woods said. "Imagine if it didn't rain last night."

With greens that Olazabal described as rock-hard only a day ago, Oakmont was softened by the Wednesday night thunderstorms and cloud cover through the better part of the morning. The greens were still fast, but players had to guard against too much spin with a wedge in their hands, and some longer irons didn't roll too far away.

Phil Mickelson didn't make a birdie in his round of 74. He didn't break his wrist, either.

It was his highest opening round at the U.S. Open in 10 years, and all things considered, it wasn't too bad. Mickelson, dealing with inflammation in his left wrist that requires him to wear a brace, played 18 holes for the first time since he won The Players Championship. He didn't have many looks at birdie, but he played the final eight holes without a bogey.

"We've got a long ways to go," he said. "I just need one good round tomorrow to get me in it for the weekend. I fought the last eight holes to keep me in it, and if I do well tomorrow, that's all I care about."

There wasn't anything too crazy at Oakmont, other than Tom Byrum hitting through the ninth green and into one of the holes on the putting green. He got a free drop and escaped with par.

There weren't too many spectacular crashes, just high scores. Seventeen players failed to break 80, while Sergio Garcia parred his last three holes to shoot 79. Masters champion Zach Johnson shot 76 and wasn't sure what to think about it.

"It's hard to figure out what par is," Johnson said. "I didn't make any big numbers. But I didn't make any birdies."

He was far from alone. In all, 28 players failed to make a single birdie.

Oakmont could not have been more gentle when Ken Duke opened the 107th championship by pulling his tee shot to the left and still managing to make a birdie. The greens were receptive from the downpour Wednesday night and morning dew. The overcast skies made the course at least feel vulnerable.

Some guys even entertained the idea of attacking.

David Toms was 3 under with six holes left in his opening round when he found one too many bunkers, hit one too many shots into the rough. Before he knew it, he had five more bogeys on his card for a 72.

"I was playing perfect golf," Toms said. "I was hitting all the fairways, I was hitting smart shots into the green. Then all of a sudden, I wasn't playing great. And I paid the price. You can make bogey after bogey after bogey."

It was a score he gladly would have taken earlier in the week. But a lot of players felt that way.

Ernie Els, a playoff winner when the U.S. Open last came here in 1994, was 1 under par as he headed for the turn, then the birdies dried up and the bogeys kept flowing.

"Monday or Tuesday, I would have taken a 73 and been happy," Els said. "I can shoot something under par. I know I can."

No one was talking that way when they arrived to find firm fairways and frightening greens, the trademark at Oakmont. When the defending champion played a practice round a week ago, he figured 10-over 290 would be enough to win by five shots.

"Right now, 10 over is not going to win if it stays like this," Ogilvy said. "There are birdies out there."

Woods had few complaints with his start, especially the way he finished. He now has gone five straight rounds in the majors without breaking par, but he was fortunate to be only 1 over. Woods had to make an 8-foot par putt on the 16th, made a nifty pitch for birdie on the short 17th, then gouged a chip out of the deep rough around the 18th green to 3 feet for another par save.

"I could have lost three shots there," he said.

That was important because of what Oakmont offers, which is not much. Woods spoke of golf courses and major championships where a player can pick up an easy birdie. But not at Oakmont.

"On this golf course, there are none," he said.

What it left was a bunched leaderboard, only two players in red numbers, starting with Dougherty.

Europe might own the Ryder Cup, but it has not produced a major champion since Paul Lawrie in the 1999 British Open at Carnoustie. The last British player to win the U.S. Open was Tony Jacklin in 1970 at Hazeltine.

"If I can just cling on now for the next 54 holes, I'll do it," Dougherty said with a smile.

Indeed, there is a long way to go, and Oakmont doesn't figure to get any easier.

"It wasn't easy by any means," Singh said. "You have to still hit the fairways and you have to hit the greens. I think the pin placements ... the tough ones are still out there. So we are in for a long week."

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