PINEHURST, N.C. – Just like six years ago at Pinehurst No. 2, the leaderboard Thursday at the U.S. Open (search) was cluttered with the best players in golf, from defending champion Retief Goosen to Masters champion Tiger Woods. The only surprise was the two leaders. Olin Browne (search) almost quit halfway through U.S. Open qualifying 10 days ago, decided to stick it out and shot 59 in his final round to earn a ticket to Pinehurst (search).
Rocco Mediate (search) has been saddled by back injuries and had not made a cut in two months until he made it through qualifying with two shots to spare.
Both wound up with a 3-under 67 in conditions that might be the easiest they see all week, taking a one-shot lead over Goosen, Lee Westwood and Brandt Jobe.
Mediate has been coping with injuries for the last two years but believes he has his back straightened out. He somehow reached the 607-yard 10th hole in two, and holed a 50-foot eagle putt to send him on his way.
Browne, a 46-year-old who has gone the last two years without his full PGA Tour card, chased a 7-wood out of the rough and onto the 16th green for a rare birdie, his third over the final six holes that gave put him atop the leaderboard for the first time in a major.
"There's absolutely no correlation between qualifying for the Open and playing in the Open, other than it gets you here," Browne said. "I would rather shoot under par at the Open than 59 screwing around at home."
Anything under par at Pinehurst is cause for celebration.
Phil Mickelson, the runner-up to the late Payne Stewart (search) in the '99 U.S. Open, made a 15-foot birdie putt on the 18th for a 69, making him one of only nine players to break par in warm sunshine along the sandhills of North Carolina.
Also at 69 were former U.S. Open champion Steve Jones, K.J. Choi and Luke Donald.
Woods and Vijay Singh, the Nos. 1 and 2 players in the world, both got around the Donald Ross design in 70, along with David Toms and Adam Scott. Two-time U.S. Open champion Ernie Els made a late birdie for 71, joined by Sergio Garcia and Masters runner-up Chris DiMarco.
Add it up, and the top nine players in the world were separated by four shots.
"Any time you shoot even par in the Open, you ought to feel pretty good — and especially this one," Woods said. "This golf course tests you more probably than any other."
And it could have been worse.
Workers occasionally hosed down the greens with water to keep them from getting too firm, too fast and incapable of holding even well-struck shots to surfaces shaped like saucers turned upside-down. At the '99 U.S. Open, the first round was played in damp conditions and 23 players broke par in the first round.
"It's the ultimate examination of your game," Mediate said. "There's no maybes. It gives you what's happening with what you're trying to do. You don't get to play unless you drive the golf ball. If you drive it bad all day, you have no chance."
His opening tee shot was so far to the right that it cleared the rough and landed on a sandy path, allowing him to rip a 3-wood to the edge of a greenside bunker on the par-5 10th and get up-and-down for birdie.
More adventure followed on the 336-yard third hole, where several big hitters tried to drive the green. Woods hit toward some trees to the right, but it bounced out toward the green and he was able to chip up and get par.
Mickelson got caught in some of the sandy, bare patches around the green and paid the price, chipping too far on the seventh and coming up some 25 feet short on the 16th, both leading to bogeys.
But the runner-up in 1999 — a major he was certain was his to win — continued to have good vibes at Pinehurst, making two early birdies to put his name among the leaders and not straying too far. Despite bogeys on the 15th and 16th, he holed the birdie putt on his final hole to break par.
Still, he issued a warning for the next three days.
"I just don't see how anybody will be under par in these conditions after 72 holes," Mickelson said. "If it gets any harder, which I'm sure it will, and any tougher, it's going to be almost impossible to shoot a round under par."
Asked to expand on his thoughts, Mickelson cut off the question and said, "It just was tough."
No need telling that to 51-year-old Jay Haas. He was leading after the first round last year at Shinnecock Hills. He failed to make a single birdie at Pinehurst, and his 82 was his highest score in 26 years at the U.S. Open.
This was simply the first lap around the track, and the idea was to avoid a big wreck.
Els had to make a 15-foot par putt on his opening hole — a par 5, no less — and was 2 over for the tournament until picking up one of only 10 birdies on the par-3 sixth and getting off the course with a 71.
"I didn't play myself out of the tournament," he said.
Goosen, Els and Woods all have a chance to win their third U.S. Open this week, and Goosen might have the best game for that. He missed only two greens — an astounding feat at Pinehurst — in his round of 68.
Goosen, who mentioned the lack of attention he received as defending champion earlier in the week, declined to stop for interviews after his round.
Singh missed only four greens, but again far too many putts that kept him at even par. He had few complaints, considering his knee was acting up on him, making it difficult to mark his ball or crouch very long to study putts. Then again, the last time it felt like that, he won the Canadian Open.
Complaints were minimal, shocking for the U.S. Open, although it was only Thursday.
Ian Poulter's biggest problem was not getting it in the hole, but getting it to stay there. One putt nearly came out of the cup on the 18th, and a 2-footer for par on the first hole did. The Englishman claimed the cup was not set the required inch below the grass, and he summoned a rules official to protest.
"They feel like the hole was an inch down. I'm telling you it wasn't," Poulter said after a 77. "There's enough things to think about out there without wondering whether the hole is actually pushed down an inch or not."
There should be plenty to think about the next three days, especially with no rain in the forecast — and Pinehurst as unyielding as ever.