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Sports

Thursday, June 17, 1999

US Open early leaders

By TIM DAHLBERG
AP Sports Writer

PINEHURST, N.C. (AP) A soggy Pinehurst No. 2 greeted golfers this morning as play began in the U.S. Open on a course soaked by overnight rains.

Phil Mickelson, carrying a beeper to alert him if his pregnant wife began going into labor, made three birdies in his first five holes and held the early lead with about a third of the field on the course at 2-under after seven holes.

Despite the rain that softened the famed domed greens, early starters found trouble everywhere as they played through a light but steady rain.

Jack Nicklaus, playing in his first Open since having hip replacement surgery, bogeyed five of his first six holes, while Japan's Jumbo Ozaki took a quadruple bogey on the 11th hole and was 10-over through 13.

Ozaki was the first player off the tee this morning, hitting a drive through the fog-shrouded first fairway into the right rough to open play under conditions that seemed more similar to the British Open than the American version.

More than a half-inch of rain fell overnight, and dozens of groundskeepers spread out before dawn to drain greens and make sure the course was in condition for the 156 golfers scheduled to tee off on the first day of play.

A drizzle greeted the morning's first group of Ozaki, David Toms and Brandel Chamblee, and forecasters predicted occasional showers and possible thunderstorms throughout the day.

The skies were expected to begin clearing late in the day, though, and conditions for the weekend should be hot and dry.

Rain was the one thing Open officials didn't want because it softens the greens, helping players hit iron shots directly at the pins perched precariously on the slopes of the famous Donald Ross design.

For the fans who surround the greens at Pinehurst No. 2, this might be the most entertaining U.S. Open in years.

It might also prove to be the most interactive.

"The gallery is going to get some business," Davis Love II said.

While one shot common in recent Opens the sideways hack out of the rough was missing as play began today in the 99th U.S. Open, a hundred others figure to replace it in and around the sloping greens of Pinehurst.

With players unafraid to go for the greens out of the relatively light rough, balls that once would be hacked back to fairways will instead be sent skyward with varying degrees of control toward the green.

The result could be that those missing the fairway could pay even worse than in the deeper rough of past Opens.

That's precisely what Open officials would like to see on a course suddenly more vulnerable to low scores after being softened by a few days of rain.

They envision players emboldened by tame lies in the rough ricocheting balls off of greens and into galleries, leaving them nearly impossible chips back toward the hole.

Tiger Woods, for one, wants his shots to end up short, since being behind the Donald Ross-designed greens means almost certain bogey and possibly worse.

Not that Woods or any of the world's best golfers are complaining about the course after years of playing out of ankle-deep rough.

"This is the best U.S. Open I've seen, and that's pretty much the word on the driving range and the putting green," Norman said. "It's going to be an Open that's more of an international Open. A lot more players could win this golf tournament than we've seen in the past."

A lot will be trying as play began this morning on the par-70 course stretched to 7,175 yards for the championship.

Heavy rain that fell overnight drained easily on the sandy soil. But it also made the greens easier to attack.

Janzen won his second Open last year at the Olympic Club in San Francisco, but that was on a more traditional Open layout with thick, wet rough and tight fairways that made it difficult to keep the ball in play.

Janzen won by playing steady on the final day and staying out of the deep rough that lined the fairways and surrounded the greens.

The winner at Pinehurst will most likely become the U.S. Open champion by figuring out the best way to get the ball up-and-down from the various shaved surfaces just off the greens.

"It's going to be real interesting to see how we choose to play different golf shots," Stewart said. "I think that's what is really going to make the Open here at Pinehurst very special.



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