Big names take Open leading roles

Mickelson, Duval go on top

Woods 1 back

June 18, 1999|By Don Markus | Don Markus,SUN STAFF

PINEHURST, N.C. -- Phil Mickelson's run at his first major championship has a little competition this week, both here at the Pinehurst Resort and Country Club as well as back home in Arizona.

Mickelson was the first to finish yesterday's opening round in the 99th U.S. Open at 3-under-par 67, but he wasn't the last. David Duval, playing in the same group, was seconds behind.

It seemed as if they were followed by a cast of thousands.

In the end, Billy Mayfair and journeyman Paul Goydos were the only other players to finish there. A bogey on the par-4 18th kept John Daly from staying there, as did Rocco Mediate's closing double-bogey later on.

The leader boards around the soft but still tricky Pinehurst No. 2 course are crammed with big names and interesting stories, none larger or more intriguing than Tiger Woods at 2-under-par 68.

Woods finished a roller-coaster round with a pair of birdies, giving the 23-year-old former Masters champion his best start in an Open by six shots and yet another boost to his already swelling confidence.

"If you saw me today, you would say, `There's no way he could have shot the number he shot,' " said Woods, looking for his third victory in as many starts and his first major since the 1997 Masters.

Woods continued to display the kind of short game that carried him to victory two weeks ago at The Memorial and in Germany last month. He one-putted 11 times, six of them for par and once for bogey.

"It was not a pretty round, but I scored," said Woods. "And the name of the game is scoring, and that's something I've always been able to do. It's just one of those things that I didn't hit the ball as good as I like."

The soaking rains that started Monday and didn't stop until yesterday morning kept some tee shots from straying into the rough and enabled many approach shots from running off the fabled crowned greens.

A total of 23 players finished under par, tying the opening round at Hazeltine in 1991 for the third most in Open history. Included among the five to finish at 2-under was Payne Stewart, who won at Hazeltine and finished second last year.

Among those at 1-under were reigning PGA champion Vijay Singh, former British Open champion Justin Leonard and former Masters champion Larry Mize. Defending champion Lee Janzen started with a 4-over 74.

"Obviously the course is playing as easy as it can today with the greens being as soft as they are," said Mickelson. "But it's a tribute to how difficult the course is in that there aren't any really low scores."

Said Duval, who had his best score ever at an Open despite burning his hand last week: "It seems to me in the past Opens I've played, the golf courses the first day are set up to where if you're playing well, you can make some birdies. After that, everyone tends to drift back a little."

Mickelson also had his best score at an Open, his second-best opening round ever in a major. It comes at a time when the former phenom is anticipating a more important event than the first major of his 13-victory career.

Mickelson's wife, Amy, is back in Scottsdale awaiting the birth of their first child. She is due at the end of the month, and has been told by her doctor that she'll be a little late.

"I made it clear and she understands that I want to be there right off the bat," said Mickelson.

Mickelson has said that he would leave if his wife goes into labor, even it's Sunday morning and he has the third-round lead. But the balance he has found in his life seems to have taken away some of the pressure Mickelson has put on himself in the past.

"When I was 20 years old, I thought gosh, the majors would be so important," said Mickelson, now 29 and still looking for his first win this year. "I have a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to be there, whereas the U.S. Open takes place every year."

Daly's biggest mistake -- a badly blocked tee shot on the 18th hole that went way right of the fairway -- didn't ruin what turned out to be his best round in an Open in a decade.

"I'm about as much in shock as everybody else," said Daly, who birdied the first three holes yesterday and managed to hang in there despite hitting only five fairways and 10 greens in regulation.

It came at a time when Daly is struggling with his game, having missed the cut three times in his last six tournaments. Daly is also reportedly struggling with his sobriety, having withdrawn twice in the last month.

Two weeks ago at Memorial, Daly finished an opening-round 82 by six-putting the 18th green. He then withdrew, tossing the single autograph he signed over his shoulder and leaving Muirfield Village without uttering a word.

"The thing is with me, I don't know who's showing up tomorrow, that's the way the year has been," said Daly, who hasn't won since the British Open at St. Andrews in 1995. "I can honestly say that, and that's a little scary."

This, too, is a scary thought. The sun came out yesterday afternoon over the pines. The real Pinehurst No. 2 is bound to show up shortly and those traditionally masochistic folks from the USGA can't wait.

NOTES: Former University of Maryland coach Fred Funk had an interesting round of 1-over-par 71. He started off with a double-bogey 6, made three straight birdies and a bogey before settling down. Still recovering from hip replacement surgery, four-time champion Jack Nicklaus finished with a 78, his worst opening round since 1970.

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