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Published: Friday, 6/15/2007

Oakmont behaves in early going; Dougherty fires 2-under for lead

BY GERRY DULAC
BLOCK NEWS ALLIANCE

OAKMONT, Pa. - The first round of the 107th U.S. Open belongs to Nick Dougherty, a reformed English party boy, at least for now. Very soon, perhaps even today, Oakmont Country Club will assume control of the tournament. If, of course, it hasn't already.

On a day when it appeared the field of 156 players would open fire at a softened Oakmont layout, the lone damage inflicted was not very damaging at all.

When it was all over yesterday, only two players managed to better par in the opening round of the Open championship - Dougherty, a sectional qualifier from Liverpool, England, and long-hitting Angel Cabrera of Argentina - a surprising number considering the accommodating conditions at Oakmont.

And, really, only Dougherty made it look easy, if such a thing is possible at Oakmont, shooting a bogey-free 32 on the back nine that included birdies at Nos. 11, 13, and 17. That left him at 2-under 68, a shot clear of Cabrera, heading into today's second round.

"My golf is in great shape," said Dougherty, 25, who is making his third Open appearance. "But this year has been disappointing in a lot of ways for me. I've led six of the 14 tournaments I've played [on the European PGA Tour], a few of them near the very end, and I haven't finished one off."

He will have a difficult time finishing one off at Oakmont, too, and he won't be alone.

There are 19 players within three shots of Dougherty, and one of those is Tiger Woods, who pulled together a balky round with a birdie at the 313-yard 17th and up-and-down pars at Nos. 16, and 18 to shoot 71.

Another is Jose Maria Olazabal, a two-time Masters champion, who is tied with long-hitting Bubba Watson at par-70 after a round in which he made only two bogeys - a significant accomplishment on a day when the scoring average was 75.306.

"I'm happy with the score, don't get me wrong," Olazabal said. "Anything around par here is going to be fantastic."

By the time the weekend arrives, anything around par might be downright phenomenal.

"I'm sure the USGA will be hoping for sunshine to dry this out, and I'm sure come Sunday it will be nice and crusty and firm, and it will be extremely difficult," Dougherty said.

Oakmont was at its most yielding in the first round, thanks to an afternoon storm on Wednesday that softened greens and kept the fairways at a safe pace. But, at the end of the day, only four players were at par or better after 18 holes. With a dry forecast for the weekend, the course will only get firmer and more difficult, likely creating a winning score that will surpass last year's total of 5-over 285 at Winged Foot and threatening the 7-over winning score in 1974, also at Winged Foot.

"It's as easy as it's going to play, and it's still pretty hard," Woods said. "Not too many guys were under par. Imagine if it didn't rain [Wednesday] night."

Woods is tied with 15 other players, including defending champ Geoff Ogilvy, Vijay Singh, and 2003 U.S. Open champ Jim Furyk, who bogeyed two of the last four holes.

Another 13 players are at 72, including Stewart Cink, David Toms, and Aaron Baddeley, who double-bogeyed the first hole and finished his round with 12 consecutive pars.

But, despite their moments, the round of the day belonged to Phil Mickelson, even though the No. 2 player in the world shot 74.

Playing with an injured left wrist that had limited his ability to play practice rounds the past four days, Mickelson parred the last eight holes despite hitting just five fairways and only eight greens in regulation. Even though he disagreed, it was an amazing performance, considering the circumstances.

"I was able to keep myself in it for [today]," said Mickelson, one of 20 players at 4-over 74.

Furyk had a chance to finish in red numbers after shooting a front-nine 34 (he started on No. 10). But he bogeyed the third hole when he had to play out from the Church Pews bunker, bogeyed the par-3 sixth when his tee shot ran through the green, and added a three-putt bogey at No. 8.

"When you get in the Church Pews, there will be guys that knock it on the green," said Furyk, the No. 3 ranked player in the world. "You can get lies if you're far enough back. I didn't have that option. It was too close. The thought wasn't if I was going to lay up; it was where I was going to lay up."

Ian Poulter of England flirted briefly with the lead. He birdied three of his first five holes to lead the tournament at 2-under and was at par through 16 holes. But he double-bogeyed the par-3 eighth, which played 252 yards, and finished at 72.

"That's what the U.S. Open does to you," Poulter said.

And that's what Dougherty wants to find out - if he can handle the U.S. Open pressure.

"I'm really good at going forward. I'm not very good at defending. I'm not good on the back foot. I can't prod it around. It's important for me to go out there and just keep going," he said.

The Block News Alliance consists of The Blade and the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. Gerry Dulac is a reporter for the Post-Gazette.



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