Dougherty takes advantage of 'slower' Oakmont to grab lead

6/14/2007 - Golf

OAKMONT, Pa. -- Oakmont was as easy as it gets. The U.S.
Open was as tough as ever.

Even with a half-inch of rain on the eve of the championship and
several hole locations that showed a compassionate side of the
USGA, Nick Dougherty and Angel Cabrera were the only players who
managed to break par Thursday in an opening round that left players
wondering if the worst was ahead of them.

Dougherty, a 25-year-old from England, played in the fourth
group of the still morning and quickly raised hopes of ending a
European drought in the majors that stretches back to 1999. He took
only 11 putts on the back nine in his round of 2-under 68, a score
not many thought possible earlier in the week.

"I think the course is -- I hate saying it -- easy," Dougherty
said, sounding like that might come back to haunt him. "Goodness,
I shouldn't have said that. No, absolutely not. The course is

Cabrera was one of only two players who reached 3 under, and
lost a share of the lead with a bogey on the 313-yard 17th.

Two-time Masters champion Jose Maria Olazabal shot even-par 70,
while the large group at 71 included Tiger Woods, defending
champion Geoff Ogilvy, Jim Furyk and Vijay Singh.

Woods holed a 12-foot birdie putt on the sixth hole that put him
1 under, his first time in red numbers at this major since the
second round at Pinehurst No. 2 in 2005. He gave it back two holes
later and never caught up to par.

"It's as easy as it's going to play, and it's still pretty
hard," Woods said. "Imagine if it didn't rain last night."

With greens that Olazabal described as rock-hard only a day ago,
Oakmont was softened by the Wednesday night thunderstorms and cloud
cover through the better part of the morning. The greens were still
fast, but players had to guard against too much spin with a wedge
in their hands, and some longer irons didn't roll too far away.

Phil Mickelson didn't make a birdie in his round of 74. He
didn't break his wrist, either.

It was his highest opening round at the U.S. Open in 10 years,
and all things considered, it wasn't too bad. Mickelson, dealing
with inflammation in his left wrist that requires him to wear a
brace, played 18 holes for the first time since he won The Players
Championship. He didn't have many looks at birdie, but he played
the final eight holes without a bogey.

"We've got a long ways to go," he said. "I just need one good
round tomorrow to get me in it for the weekend. I fought the last
eight holes to keep me in it, and if I do well tomorrow, that's all
I care about."

There wasn't anything too crazy at Oakmont, other than Tom Byrum
hitting through the ninth green and into one of the holes on the
putting green. He got a free drop and escaped with par.

There weren't too many spectacular crashes, just high scores.
Seventeen players failed to break 80, while Sergio Garcia parred
his last three holes to shoot 79. Masters champion Zach Johnson
shot 76 and wasn't sure what to think about it.

"It's hard to figure out what par is," Johnson said. "I
didn't make any big numbers. But I didn't make any birdies."

He was far from alone. In all, 28 players failed to make a
single birdie.

Oakmont could not have been more gentle when Ken Duke opened the
107th championship by pulling his tee shot to the left and still
managing to make a birdie. The greens were receptive from the
downpour Wednesday night and morning dew. The overcast skies made
the course at least feel vulnerable.

Some guys even entertained the idea of attacking.

David Toms was 3 under with six holes left in his opening round
when he found one too many bunkers, hit one too many shots into the
rough. Before he knew it, he had five more bogeys on his card for a

"I was playing perfect golf," Toms said. "I was hitting all
the fairways, I was hitting smart shots into the green. Then all of
a sudden, I wasn't playing great. And I paid the price. You can
make bogey after bogey after bogey."

It was a score he gladly would have taken earlier in the week.
But a lot of players felt that way.

Ernie Els, a playoff winner when the U.S. Open last came here in
1994, was 1 under par as he headed for the turn, then the birdies
dried up and the bogeys kept flowing.

"Monday or Tuesday, I would have taken a 73 and been happy,"
Els said. "I can shoot something under par. I know I can."

No one was talking that way when they arrived to find firm
fairways and frightening greens, the trademark at Oakmont. When the
defending champion played a practice round a week ago, he figured
10-over 290 would be enough to win by five shots.

"Right now, 10 over is not going to win if it stays like
this," Ogilvy said. "There are birdies out there."

Woods had few complaints with his start, especially the way he
finished. He now has gone five straight rounds in the majors
without breaking par, but he was fortunate to be only 1 over. Woods
had to make an 8-foot par putt on the 16th, made a nifty pitch for
birdie on the short 17th, then gouged a chip out of the deep rough
around the 18th green to 3 feet for another par save.

"I could have lost three shots there," he said.

That was important because of what Oakmont offers, which is not
much. Woods spoke of golf courses and major championships where a
player can pick up an easy birdie. But not at Oakmont.

"On this golf course, there are none," he said.

What it left was a bunched leaderboard, only two players in red
numbers, starting with Dougherty.

Europe might own the Ryder Cup, but it has not produced a major
champion since Paul Lawrie in the 1999 British Open at Carnoustie.
The last British player to win the U.S. Open was Tony Jacklin in
1970 at Hazeltine.

"If I can just cling on now for the next 54 holes, I'll do
it," Dougherty said with a smile.

Indeed, there is a long way to go, and Oakmont doesn't figure to
get any easier.

"It wasn't easy by any means," Singh said. "You have to still
hit the fairways and you have to hit the greens. I think the pin
placements ... the tough ones are still out there. So we are in for
a long week."