- Associated Press - Thursday, June 16, 2011

BETHESDA, MD. (AP) - Light rain. Heavy rough. Welcome to the 111th U.S. Open.

The season’s second major got under way Thursday morning under gray, rainy skies at Congressional Country Club, with umbrellas out as Graeme McDowell headed to the first tee box to start the defense of his title.

A light drizzle started falling just moments after South Korean Dae-Hyun Kim hit the first shot of the tournament, then the rain picked up over the next hour. There was a 50 percent chance of thunderstorms later in the afternoon.

With about two dozen players on the course in the early going, there were only two players under par. They were qualifier Nicolas Colsaerts and 2009 British Open champion Stewart Cink, who each made birdie on the par-3 10th hole to get in red numbers right away.

Harrison Frazer, who won for the first time in 355 PGA Tour starts last week in Memphis, briefly got under par but made a bogey on No. 12 to give back the shot.

McDowell, last year’s winner, was grouped with U.S. Amateur champion Peter Uihlein and British Open champion Louis Oosthuizen. The world’s top three players _ Luke Donald, Lee Westwood and Martin Kaymer _ also grouped together with a morning tee time.

Tiger Woods is out with an injury, making a normally wide-open tournament that much more unpredictable.

Among the so-called favorites are Phil Mickelson, Dustin Johnson and Rory McIlroy, who were grouped together in the glamour threesome of the afternoon.

The USGA came back to the nation’s capital for the first time since 1997, when Ernie Els won his second U.S. Open. Congressional is a long, beast of a course that normally hosts congressmen and Washington’s power set, but this week is set up for the national championship at 7,574 yards, which makes it the second-longest layout in the history of the tournament.

USGA officials weren’t able to get the course set up to playing conditions during the practice rounds because of unusually hot weather in the Washington area in the week before the U.S. Open. They were confident, however, that by the time the first round started, Congressional would be easily recognizable as an Open course _ with fast greens, thick rough and not a whole lot of birdie opportunities.

It is not, by any means, a course designed to give up good scores. Knowing that, the USGA went against tradition and actually added a stroke to par, turning the sixth hole from a 490-yard par-4 _ of which there are already plenty on this course _ into a reachable, 555-yard par-5, albeit with tighter fairways and a green designed to reject pushed shots into a lake on the right side.

“A well-executed shot will make it to that putting green,” USGA vice president Tom O’Toole said. “A poorly executed shot will not. It’s a primary example of risk-reward. Risk: bogey or double bogey by flirting with the water hazard. The reward: a two-putt birdie or a putt at eagle for 3.”

After that, though, it’s hard to find a lot of places to make birdie. Congressional doesn’t offer any drivable par-4s, an increasingly popular USGA feature that, for instance, turned the 320-yard fourth hole at Pebble Beach last year and the downhill, 330-yard sixth at Winged Foot in 2006, into must-watch events.

The par-3s are all either long, or uphill, or over water, or some combination of all that. The par-3 10th is generating some talk this year; it used to be the 18th hole, but closing on a par-3 in 1997 turned out to be a bust, emphasized when Colin Montgomerie, in the running along with Els, waited more than 10 minutes to putt on No. 17 for fear the noise on the adjacent 18th would disrupt him.

Montgomerie missed, Els finished the tournament with a fairly anticlimactic par and the idea of finishing a major on a par-3 was tossed in the scrap heap.

So, in addition to moving that hole to the start of the back nine and making the old No. 17 the new No. 18, the club tore up the par-3 and transformed it from an uphill shot where the water wasn’t really in play to a downhill shot with a 200-yard forced carry onto a narrow green. Quite a way to kick off the round for half the field on the first two days, when the U.S. Open will use a two-tee start.

“The average guy can’t play that hole,” Mickelson said in criticizing the design. “He can’t carry that water and get it stopped on that green. So when I play that hole, 3 is a great score.”

But Cink and Colsaerts didn’t have any trouble, finding the green and making their putts to get in the red early.

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