- The Washington Times - Friday, June 18, 2004

SOUTHAMPTON, N.Y. — Day one at the 104th U.S. Open produced a leader board commensurate with the dismal Long Island afternoon.

The golf world spent the last several weeks anticipating a high-profile showdown at Shinnecock Hills featuring Tiger and the four tops — torrid 2004 rivals Ernie Els, Vijay Singh, Phil Mickelson and Sergio Garcia. What they got was a fizzler of a first-round featuring a rain delay, a fog suspension, 50-year-old Jay Haas and a board full of B-players.

Playing in his 25th U.S. Open, the ageless Haas opened with a superb 66 on the linksy 6,996-yard, par-70 layout to share the overnight lead with Japan’s Shigeki Maruyama and Argentina’s Angel Cabrera.

“It was just the kind of day that you had to feel you could be aggressive at a U.S. Open,” said Haas, who played in the day’s benign early conditions with fellow seniors Raymond Floyd and Tom Kite. “Raymond said he’d never seen it play with as little wind as we had today.”

Unfortunately, few of the game’s biggest names took advantage of the relatively soft, windless conditions, leaving an unlikely group of Slam suitors clustered at the top of the board when play was suspended at 7:40p.m. because of fog and darkness. Among the eight players who completed their rounds at 2-under or better, only one has a major title to his credit. And that one man, 2003 British Open champion Ben Curtis, qualifies as one of the most shocking major winners in the game’s history.

Disappointingly scattered well beneath the first-round rabbits are Els (70), Woods (72) and Garcia (72), all of whom failed to cash in on the premium scoring conditions. And Mickelson and Singh, the only members of golf’s top-five to grind into red figures, were among the 57 players who had their play interrupted by rain and fog and finished the day stranded midway through their first rounds.

Mickelson, who played almost flawless golf from tee to green, reached 2-under through 15 holes before the horn sounded on the day.

“I’m just loving playing golf right now,” said the recently crowned Masters champion after hitting all but two greens in regulation. “These are optimum scoring conditions. … I wanted to get as many holes in as possible today. I hope it doesn’t blow for us tomorrow to finish up, but that’s very unlikely. It’ll probably start out long tomorrow.”

Mickelson and the other 56 players yet to complete their first rounds (including Cabrera) will resume play at 7a.m. today and second-round play is set to commence as scheduled.

“It’s going to make for a long day at what is already a grueling event,” said Corey Pavin (1-under through 13 holes), off to a surprisingly strong start at the scene of his 1995 U.S. Open triumph. “Hopefully, it will stay damp out there, and we can attack tomorrow morning. But it’s a U.S. Open, so you have to expect anything and keep grinding.”

Grinding was the order of the day for Woods, who continued his recent streak of struggling in major openers. Fighting his driver as he has all season, Woods hit only five fairways en route to a scrambling 72 which could have been far worse.

“There’s an awful long way to go,” said the 28-year-old Woods, who got up-and-down an astounding six of the seven times he bunkered approach shots yesterday. “I know how to play U.S. Opens. … It’s about patience, endurance and survival, and I did those things today and kept myself in it.”

In spite of Tiger’s predictable optimism, it’s hard to fancy his chances after such a start. After all, Woods’ average first-round score in his eight major victories is 68.13, and he’s never rallied to victory in a Slam after opening with a score of worse than 2-under.

That said, Tiger’s performance was far from the day’s worst among the Open’s more scrutinized participants. David Duval’s much-anticipated return to competitive golf began with a ghastly 83. But to hear him after the round, you would never know Duval had hit only four fairways and three greens while matching the day’s highest score.

“I just kind of felt pretty darn good today and as comfortable as I’ve felt in a long time,” said the 2001 British Open champion, whose poor play last season drove him to take an eight-month sabbatical as he plummeted to No.437 in the world rankings. “All in all, I would call it an enormous victory for me today. … I can’t wait to go play tomorrow.”

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