- The Washington Times - Friday, June 14, 2002

FARMINGDALE, N.Y. Here we go again.

Tiger Woods obviously didn't like the sound of the term "co-leader." So, golf's 26-year-old magician buried a 15-footer for birdie on his final hole yesterday to clean up a 67 and take a one-stroke lead over Sergio Garcia at the 102nd U.S. Open.

But Woods' rousing finish wasn't the most impressive thing about his opening round at Bethpage State Park. And neither was the re-emergence of the platinum putting stroke he used to flog the game's major championship fields in 2000. Though he once again did devastating work with the short stick, one-putting eight times en route to taming the 7,214-yard, par-70 Black Course, there were more impressive feats afoot.

The most telling sign that the planet's best player is serious about achieving the second leg of the Grand Slam came via his phenomenal focus yesterday. Rarely has Woods faced a tougher set of circumstances in the first round of a major. And never has he handled those obstacles with such an impressive display of mental fortitude.

"Today was definitely more mentally than physically draining," said Woods, who is seeking to keep his Slam hopes alive on Long Island with his eighth major championship. "There's not one golf shot out there where you can relax and just ho-hum it out there."

In fact, nothing about Woods' first round was of the routine variety.

First, he started on the back nine. The 10th tee of the Black Course is nowhere near the clubhouse, the driving range or the putting green. That meant that after he warmed up, Woods had to hop on a shuttle for a 10-minute drive out to No.10 and then sit around for 30 minutes waiting for his starting time.

"I think that was the most difficult thing about starting on the back nine," said Woods, one of only six players to break par on the chilly, overcast day. "I think it was 40 minutes between my last shot on the range and my drive on No.10. That's hard on your rhythm, and I hit a terrible drive on No.10. I almost hit my right foot with the clubhead coming down."

Not only was that time lapse a trial for Woods and half the field yesterday, but then he also faced the reality of starting his Open assault on the most challenging stretch of holes on the course, and perhaps in major championship history.

"That start [Nos.[ThSp]10-12] is without a doubt the most difficult I've seen," said Woods, who carded three pars on the par-4s that measure 492, 435 and 499 yards, respectively. "For one thing, the first hole is 490 yards right out of the blocks. And for some reason, that fairway looks a little smaller when it's your first shot."

And Tiger's round didn't get any easier after Bethpage's brutal back-nine triad. The gallery following him was immense, perhaps the biggest and certainly the most raucous he has ever experienced. The New York mob even raised a din when he took a bathroom break in a porta-potty between the 14th green and 15th tee.

"Are you guys clapping because I'm potty trained," asked a mystified Woods. "I've made it this far, you'd think I'd know how to go."

But the state of affairs with the massive gallery took a more serious turn when Woods stood over a 12-foot par putt on No.16. A fan screamed as Woods, then 2 under, began his stroke, and he shoved his par bid past the hole.

"He got me right in my stroke. I flinched and pushed the putt," said Woods. "It happens."

Such was the unflappable manner in which Woods dealt with all of the day's irritations. When he reached for his 3-wood on the seventh tee, he heard something rattling inside the clubhead. Though the good folks at Titleist had supposedly fixed the club Wednesday, Woods didn't get flustered. He simply shoved it back in the bag, pulled his driver and manufactured "a high, bunt fade" into the center of the fairway.

"That hole doesn't exactly set up well for my driver, but I managed," said Woods.

That pretty much sums up Woods' day. He managed the course, with its 25-yard-wide fairways, unparalleled length and jungle-style rough. He survived the crowd. And he dealt with a fiendish start and faulty equipment. His overwhelmed two bogeys (at Nos.16 and 6) with five birdies (at Nos.13, 14, 18, 2 and 9) and stalked home one ahead of the personable Spaniard and two clear of the quartet of Dudley Hart, K.J. Choi, Jeff Maggert and Billy Mayfair.

Woods has always been a devastating front-runner, losing only one major in which he has shared or held the first-round lead (1998 British Open). But perhaps the field has even less reason for hope this week, because Woods might very well have put his toughest, most distraction-filled round behind him yesterday. He begins his second round on the front side, playing in the more putter-friendly conditions always afforded by morning starting times. You get the feeling his dog-day afternoon is behind him. And he still managed to survive it perched atop the leader board.

"I'm very satisfied, because it was playing very difficult out there," said Woods, who tees off at 8:45 this morning, four hours before Garcia starts from the back. "You know at a U.S. Open anything under par is good work, a good job."

Now the rest of the field faces one of the toughest jobs in sports chasing down an intrepid Tiger.

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