OAKMONT, Pa. – Nick Dougherty shot a 2-under 68 for the early first-round lead at the U.S. Open on Thursday, but the real story was how Oakmont Country Club was living up to its reputation as one of America's toughest courses.
About six hours into opening round play, only nine golfers were under par, despite speculation that a late-afternoon thunderstorm on Wednesday created better scoring conditions by slowing -- if just a little -- Oakmont's traditionally fast greens.
Not so fast.
Tiger Woods found out during his first tournament round at Oakmont how tough it can be, even though he was only three shots off the lead with a 1-over 71, tied with defending champion Geoff Ogilvy.
"It's right there," Woods said. "Three, four, five over par, you're still in the tournament. You've got to hang in there. This golf course is hard. It's hard to make birdies and it's easy to make bogeys and doubles.
"Nobody's taking it to the golf course. This was as easy as it's going to play, and look what happened."
It was much worse for some other big names. Sergio Garcia shot himself out of contention with a 9-over 79. And Colin Montgomerie, Masters champion Zach Johnson and two-time U.S. Open champion Retief Goosen were near the bottom of the leader board at 6-over 76.
Montgomerie tied for second a year ago at Winged Foot following an opening-round 69 and was third in a three-way playoff with champion Ernie Els and Loren Roberts during the last U.S. Open at Oakmont in 1994.
Els opened Thursday at 3-over.
David Toms, a former U.S. PGA champion who doesn't have entirely pleasant memories of nearby Pittsburgh, was 3 under at the turn after starting at No. 10 and appeared to be on his way to an excellent opening round. But he closed with five bogeys in the final six holes and a 2-over 72.
Toms was in danger of dying after developing a racing heart beat during the 84 Lumber Classic in 2005, and doctors at a Pittsburgh hospital had to stop his heart, then restart it to bring the condition under control. He later needed corrective surgery.
The U.S. Golf Association was concerned that a storm that dumped about a half-inch (centimeter) of rain on Oakmont in a short time on Wednesday took away some of Oakmont's legendary speed and created putting conditions more favorable than it wanted. Johnny Miller shot his record 63 to win the 1973 U.S. Open at Oakmont following such a storm.
Apparently, there needn't have been any worry.
"The U.S. Open is brutal," said Dougherty, who is 28th on the European PGA money list. "It tests every aspect of your game and mentally as well."
Dougherty, a one-time protege of Nick Faldo, had four birdies, three on the back nine.
"My short game was superb," Dougherty said. "My course discipline was superb as well. I'm just pleased to get through hitting the way I did."
Among the bigger names teeing off later was Phil Mickelson, who has a left wrist injury that prevented him from playing a full practice round this week. Vijay Singh and Jim Furyk were also afternoon starters.
The high scores probably weren't a surprise to honorary tournament chairman Arnold Palmer, who questioned whether the field was ready to challenge Oakmont and its speedy greens.
This is a record eighth U.S. Open at Oakmont, but the first in 13 years, and only a dozen or so players have tournament experience on a course reputed to be the toughest in America. And this Oakmont doesn't look like that pre-Tiger Oakmont of 1994, not with 5,000 trees leveled since then, the bunkers made deeper and more threatening and the Church Pews bunker expanded.
With so much trouble awaiting, and so little Oakmont experience out there, Palmer predicted it could be a very shaky opening round or two for many. He hasn't missed an Open at Oakmont in more than 50 years, but he almost sounded relieved to be sitting this one out.
For all the changes, he said, what sets Oakmont apart are greens so fast and tilted that the USGA is having trouble finding four adequate pin placements on each hole.
"And they were probably the easiest pin in each section ... but still look at the scores," Woods said.