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Look who's back in front - Tiger leads U.S. Open
Associated Press/Charles Krupa
While much of the field encountered trouble, Tiger Woods avoided it and led by a stroke after Thursday's round of the U.S. Open at the Black Course of Bethpage State Park in Farmingdale, N.Y. By Doug Ferguson ~ The Associated Press
FARMINGDALE, N.Y. -- Bethpage Black is no longer the most frightening thing about this U.S. Open.
It's the sight of Tiger Woods on his game and in the lead.
Never mind that 16 players didn't record a single birdie and 15 guys couldn't even break 80. Or that only six players broke par Thursday, the smallest number in the first round of a U.S. Open since no one did at windy Shinnecock Hills in 1986.
A beast of a course only brought out the best in the world's No. 1 player.
"I tried to stay out of trouble as much as I could," Woods said after a 3-under 67, breaking down a torturous day into a simple explanation.
An 18-foot birdie on his final hole gave Woods a one-stroke lead over Sergio Garcia after a long day that made some of the world's best feel like weekend golfers who pay $39 for the privilege of playing the Black Course at Bethpage State Park.
"This golf course is more difficult than Pebble was playing," Woods said, referring to his 15-stroke victory in the U.S. Open two years ago. "You hit one poor shot and you're going to pay the price."
Bethpage Black didn't get into Tiger's wallet.
Woods missed only three fairways and never had a putt for par longer than 12 feet. He made that one, along with six others of at least 8 feet.
"The only time I've putted better than this was at Augusta," he said.
Woods won the Masters in April, and is off to a great start in his quest to become the first player since Jack Nicklaus in 1972 to win the first two legs of the Grand Slam.
Garcia, the 22-year-old Spaniard who first challenged Woods three years ago in the PGA Championship, chipped in for birdie on the fifth hole and had two big par saves toward the end of his round for a 68.
"You've got to realize that 1- or 2-under par, or even par, is always going to be a good round," Garcia said. "There's not going to be a lot of good scores today."
He was right.
The Black Course was as brutal as everyone expected.
Dudley Hart recovered from a triple bogey by closing his round out with three straight birdies for a 69. He was joined by K.J. Choi of South Korea, Jeff Maggert and Billy Mayfair.
Nick Faldo, who received a special exemption to play in his 60th consecutive major only two weeks ago, made good use of it by holing a 35-foot putt on his last hole for a 70. Others who held their ground against par were Phil Mickelson and Stewart Cink.
As for everyone else?
Defending champion Retief Goosen was 9-over through 12 holes and finished with a 79.
British Open champion David Duval couldn't beat a 16-year-old. He and high school qualifier Derek Tolan each had a 78, and probably shared one other thing in common.
"I didn't think I'd be nervous, but watch the tape," Tolan said. "I'm walking kind of funny. It's like I forgot to breathe."
As tough as it was Thursday, there could not have been an easier day for scoring with the cloud cover, overnight rain that softened the fairways and greens, and no wind.
"I hope they leave it like this for you guys," Jim McGovern told reporters after a 75. "Then I'll ask all the questions."
Some of the scores were typical for a Thursday at Bethpage Black -- just not the week of a U.S. Open.
Bob Estes, a winner two weeks ago at the Kemper Open, had three double bogeys in a round of 81. The course played nearly five strokes over par, and when Billy Andrade was asked about the two par 5s on the Black, he quickly offered a correction.
"There are six par 5s," he said.
Some of the shots resembled what New Yorkers go through on the Black, too.
Davis Love III, who was 3-under par on the front nine, hit into the knee-high fescue on No. 16. His full swing with a sand wedge came to a halt when the club hit grass, and the ball went only 15 yards.
"This is a great golf course to get to play," Love said. "And when they mow the rough, it will be even better."
The Black is no muny this week.
One of the few players who managed to cope was Garcia, whose blistering start included a chip-in for birdie on No. 5. He missed only three fairways and took just 25 putts -- 13 on the back nine, including par saves from about 10 feet on Nos. 16 and 17.
"The greens weren't as firm, but I'll tell you one thing -- they were fast," Garcia said. "I think these greens are probably the slopiest, flattest greens I've ever seen in my life."
That was a dig at U.S. Golf Association officials who suggested that a 72-hole scoring record might be broken this week because of the relatively flat greens. They also said that while the Black was tough, none of the holes lent themselves to big numbers.
Try telling that to Justin Leonard, who was 1-under par until two chops with the wedge moved his ball about 6 feet on No. 12. He took triple bogey, shot a 40 on the back nine and finished with a 73.
Mickelson also made a mistake -- ironically, the guy known for taking risks recorded a double bogey by playing too conservatively.
He was so determined to hit the short grass on the 459-yard 15th hole that he hit 2-iron off the tee, which left him another 2-iron into an elevated green. He came up short, hacked out to 70 feet and took three putts.
Still, it was his only real mistake on a day in which he drove the ball well and remained in good shape to finally claim an elusive major championship.
Based on Mickelson's projections, he's in great shape.
"I thought the course was playing as soft as it could, and still it's one of the most difficult tests," Mickelson said. "If it stays like this, I think 4 or 5 over has a good shot at winning. If the wind picks up and the greens dry out, I think we're probably looking at 9, 10 or 11 over."
The last U.S. Open champion to finish over par was Andy North (1-over 285) at Cherry Hills in 1978.
That means Woods might have to chop it up in the next three days, and that doesn't seem possible -- not after Thursday, when he blocked out the raucous New York gallery and putted as well as he did when he won four straight majors.
Still, Woods is not perfect with a first-round lead in a major. On four previous occasions, his record is 2-2.