- The Washington Times - Friday, June 15, 2007

OAKMONT, Pa. — Round 1 of the U.S. Open belonged to Oakmont.

Despite benign pin positions and relatively soft greens, the 7,230-yard, par-70 layout northeast of Pittsburgh tormented most of golf’s glitterati yesterday, yielding only two rounds below par and leaving major stranger Nick Dougherty (68) at the head of a leader board logjam.

“It’s as soft and receptive as you’re possibly going to have it, and not too many guys are taking it to the golf course,” 12-time major champion Tiger Woods said after turning a suspect ball-striking round into a survival 71.

Woods’ early morning salvage job continued to look better as the day wore on and a steady breeze dried up Oakmont’s savagely sloping greens, forcing the field scoring average well north of par.

“I certainly think the morning players have had the better half of it,” said Dougherty, who hit only 12 greens but used just 11 putts around the back nine to post the first below-par salvo of his brief major career. “The course is barbaric. It really is. … But I think [Wednesday night’s] thunderstorm made it easier than it otherwise would have been because it softened the greens.”

In some respects, Dougherty is the quintessential first-round Open rabbit, a virtually undecorated professional with four missed cuts and a forgettable tie for 52nd (2005 U.S. Open) in five previous major starts. In many ways, however, the 25-year-old Brit is nothing like the Dave Schreyers (1997), Brett Quigleys (2003) and Kenneth Ferries (2006) who have crashed the Thursday Open parties in the recent past.

Though it’s true Dougherty has only one European Tour victory to his credit (2005 Singapore Masters), few players on either side of the Atlantic over the last decade entered the professional ranks with Dougherty’s raft of fanfare.

A dominant junior amateur, the Liverpool native won the prestigious Nick Faldo Junior Series in 1997, 1999 and 2000, forging a close bond with the six-time major champion along the way.

“[Faldo] gave me some private lessons, which you can imagine is like a dream come true,” said Dougherty, who was made for the camera with his spiky coif, boyish good looks and easy smile. “I started playing quite well, won quite a lot of tournaments in succession and the relationship built.”

Along with Luke Donald, Dougherty anchored Great Britain’s victorious 2001 Walker Cup side and turned pro later that year, earning the Sir Henry Cotton Rookie of the Year Award on the European Tour in 2002. But just when most folks were ready to tab Dougherty the brightest gem among a dazzling array of young English players known as the “Crown Jewels” (Dougherty, Donald, Paul Casey, Ian Poulter, David Howell and Justin Rose), life got in the way.

“I was a young man, and young men have fun. I don’t regret it,” said Dougherty, who spent more time in nightclubs in 2003 and 2004 than on the driving range, earning the nickname “Mojo” from his peers for his easy rapport with young women. “I saw it all and did it all. … But those days are long gone to be honest.”

After two lost years, Dougherty recommitted himself to golf in 2005, a season that yielded his first European Tour victory and a 15th-place finish on the Order of Merit. After flirting with a spot on the Ryder Cup roster last season, Dougherty has taken another step forward this season, finishing in the top 25 in nine of his 14 starts on the European Tour.

“I’m playing really well at the moment, but this year has been disappointing in a lot of ways,” Dougherty said. “I’ve led I think six tournaments of the 14 I’ve played at some stage, a few of them very near to the end. And I haven’t finished one off, which has been extremely disappointing to me. But it does also show that I’ve been playing very consistently.”

Dougherty has had a nasty habit this season of throwing one atrocious round into the mix amid otherwise-stellar tournament performances. But he doesn’t seem the sort to be intimidated by the stage nor the moment. Perhaps no notable professional since Fred Couples has had Dougherty’s stunningly casual charm. Nobody expects him to win this week at Oakmont in his first taste of major contention. But unlike most players, much less first-timers, he obviously revels in the spotlight.

“I want to be one of those European and British players media look at to fly the flag for us in these tournaments because we’ve had a drought recently,” said Dougherty, alluding to the fact no European has won the Open since 1970 (Tony Jacklin) and nobody from the Old World has won a major of any sort since the 1999 British Open (Scotland’s Paul Lawrie at Carnoustie). “I believe I’m a good enough golfer to contend in majors whether it’s now or this year or down the line.”

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