BETHESDA, Md. – With no Tiger Woods to worry about this time, Y.E. Yang was off to a good start in his quest for a second major championship Thursday, shooting 3-under-par 68 to take the early clubhouse lead at the U.S. Open.
Yang's 2009 PGA title was memorable because it marked the first time Woods failed to win after taking a lead into the last day of a major. The South Korean hasn't contended in a Grand Slam since, but said Congressional Country Club fits his game better than most courses.
"I've been playing more conservatively," Yang said. "I'm trying to make more pars, less bogeys and I was lucky to make a few birdies. Overall, the course and my approach has worked to my advantage."
Yang had a one-stroke lead over American Ryan Palmer and Louis Oosthuizen, who won the British Open last year on the links at St. Andrews and saw a much different course at super-sized Congressional. Oosthuizen had an uneven round — six birdies and four bogeys. He was in the lead for a while, fell back to even par but played 16, 17 and 18 at 2 under to get back near the top of the leaderboard.
Oosthuizen said the course, softened by rain early in the round, seemed easy compared to what he'd heard might be coming.
"But it's only my second U.S. Open, so I can't really say," he said.
Defending champion Graeme McDowell was among a group of six who shot 70. Also in that mix was Davis Love III, who missed a 3-foot putt on 18 that would have tied him with Oosthuizen and Palmer, a three-time winner on tour who is back at the U.S. Open for the first time since 2007.
Palmer led for a good portion of the day until he overcooked his approach on the par-5 16th hole, couldn't get up and down and made bogey.
It was that kind of day for almost everyone on the early leaderboard — lots of opportunities, some of them converted, others not, on a day that ran the gamut, weather-wise, from rain to clouds to sun to wind. Most players agreed, though, that the course was there for the taking.
Unable to take advantage were all three members of the morning's marquee group — No. 1 Luke Donald (74), No. 2 Lee Westwood (75) and No. 3 Martin Kaymer (74). They combined for 17 bogeys and one double on an opening day that showed how tough the U.S. Open can be, even when the conditions are benign.
"Any course is a mental grind if you're not sharp. The U.S. Open is no different," Westwood said.
This season's second major is usually the most unpredictable — even more so this year by the absence of Woods, who is nursing his knee and Achilles.
Some believe Woods' slow downfall may have started at the 2009 PGA when he lost to Yang. On Thursday, Yang made three birdies on his second nine and knocked in an 8-foot tester on his final hole to finish his round of 68. He said the course suited his eye.
"Actually, I might have to eat my words on the easy set-up," Yang said. "I think it's more because of the weather. It was just great timing for me."
Tied with Love and McDowell at 70 were Henrik Stenson, Chez Reavie, Johan Edfors and former British Open champion Stewart Cink, who believed the morning group probably got a break on opening day.
"If the wind keeps up, we had it about as good as its going to get," Cink said.
Indeed, the afternoon started poorly for Phil Mickelson. Placed in a glamour threesome with Rory McIlroy and Dustin Johnson, Mickelson opened play on the par-3 10th — a hole he said earlier in the week that he doesn't much like — and put his first shot in the water en route to a double bogey.
But the 10th hole, playing at a shortened 199 yards, wasn't as unfair or difficult as Mickelson said it might be. About halfway through the round, it had yielded 12 birdies and was ranked as only the eighth hardest hole on the course.