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Published: Friday, 6/15/2007

Liverpool's Dougherty has tough act to follow

OAKMONT, Pa. - Nick Dougherty could win the U.S. Open this weekend. Heck, he could go on and win the career Grand Slam and about a dozen Orders of Merit on the European Tour, and they could name a golf club after him, say the D-wedge, and he still would be an afterthought in the annals of Liverpool, his hometown in England.

Liverpool is all about the Beatles, of course. Paul, John, George, and Ringo. And Pete; don't forget Pete.

Pete Best was the original drummer for the Beatles. Dougherty's father knew Best and had the opportunity to purchase one of Paul McCartney's first guitars. He bought it, kept it for a while, and then traded it.

For what, you might ask? A bar of gold? A diamond mine? A two-century-old cask of single malt scotch?

No, for a flute, for his son.

Here's where we pause for a chuckle, because Nick Dougherty has never come across as a flute-playin' type of guy, although as a youngster he could make seriously sweet music. He could have been a flautist of some renown, we're told. Nick Faldo, meanwhile, felt Dougherty could be a golfer of some renown.

For a spell, though, until a couple years ago, Nick opted to be a hard-partying type who would greet the bottom of a glass and the top of a sunrise at about the same time. It was always one sunrise. How many glasses? Who was counting?

"I was a young man, and young men have fun. Now I know the right way to run my life. There, that was diplomatic, wasn't it?" he said yesterday after an opening-round 68 that led the 107th United States Open at Oakmont Country Club.

At 25, Dougherty is still a young man, and now he's having a different kind of fun, the kind Faldo envisioned years ago when young Nick, who won an under-14 tournament at the age of 6, was playing in the Faldo Junior Series and earned a coveted prize - a round of golf with the tour's namesake.

"A dream come true," Dougherty said. "For a British golfer, Nick Faldo, he's Tiger Woods to us, especially back then. I started playing quite well, won quite a lot of tournaments, and the relationship built. He's taken me on quite a few trips. He's given me so much help, tuition, guidance. I've been very, very privileged. What more could you want from a guy that's achieved as much as he has?"

Faldo, now pretty much retired to the TV booth, won six majors. Dougherty is one-fourth of the way to his first.

His success in yesterday's first round at Oakmont was so intoxicating that Dougherty actually used the words "Open" and "easy" in the same sentence. He was reacting to his score early in the day after a wicked thunderstorm Wednesday night dumped about one-half inch of rain on this course in the eastern suburbs of Pittsburgh.

"Goodness, I shouldn't have said that," Dougherty said a bit later, before adding with a laugh, "The course is barbaric."

Well, maybe not. But Oakmont was still a toughie. Despite the rain and softer, slower greens, the wind was at work most of the day, and only two players - Dougherty and Argentina's Angel Cabrera with a 1-under 69 - broke par.

Dougherty is playing in his third straight U.S. Open, always qualifying in a sectional tournament at Walton Heath in England. In 2005, he and Michael Campbell tied for the last spot in the qualifier and both played at Pinehurst No. 2.

Campbell, you may recall, won.

Could this be Dougherty's turn?

"I believe I'm a good enough golfer to contend in majors," he said. "I want to be one of the European and British players to fly the flag for us in these tournaments."

And make Liverpudlians, not to mention flautists everywhere, so very proud.



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