SOUTHAMPTON, N.Y. -- The 104th U.S. Open at Shinnecock Hills Golf Club was supposed to be a confluence of the world's best players finding their way to one of the world's toughest courses at a time when, with one notable exception, all seemed to be at the top of their games.
While a few of the sport's elite are certain to contend and still seem poised to win, the opening round yesterday was about players who had rarely been in that position before and one -- Jay Haas -- who continues to confound and compete despite recently becoming eligible for the Champions Tour.
Haas, 50, shot a 4-under-par 66 to share the lead with Japan's Shigeki Maruyama. Six players, including reigning British Open champion Ben Curtis, are two strokes behind. Five others, including former Masters champion Mike Weir of Canada, are three back.
Two-time U.S. Open champion Ernie Els of South Africa, who started Tiger Woods' winless streak of majors by taking the 2002 British Open, recovered from a shaky start of 3-over through three holes to shoot even-par 70. Former Maryland coach Fred Funk also shot 70 but gave away three strokes over the last four holes.
Haas was the steadiest.
"I guess all of my career I've felt I was capable of winning a major," said Haas, who has played professionally since 1977. "I certainly haven't done it. But I don't think that because a couple of first-time winners have done it recently since Tiger [Woods] won last ... I think only about me."
Playing in the same group with Raymond Floyd, who at 43 won the Open when it was held here in 1986, Haas kidded Floyd before the first round.
"I told him, no matter what the score [on each hole], why don't you hit first and show us where to go?" Haas said later.
As the round unfolded, Haas didn't need a guide. Haas remembered enough from the 69 he shot on the final round at the Open here in 1995, when he finished tied for fourth, to feel comfortable upon his return. The conditions were different, but the warm breezes made the course play softer and easier than anticipated.
Not for everyone, that is.
Woods, looking to win his first major since his Open victory at nearby Bethpage Black in 2002, hit only five of 14 fairways to shoot 2-over 72, the same score as Spain's Sergio Garcia and reigning U.S. Open champion Jim Furyk, who was playing his first tournament since undergoing wrist surgery in March.
Other former major champions found themselves falling quickly out of contention. Davis Love III finished with a 76, Nick Faldo with an 81 and David Duval, playing his first event since last year, tied for the worst score of the day with an 83.
"It goes without saying that I am not tournament-ready," said Duval, who birdied the first hole and parred the next two. "I felt like I hit some really nice shots. All in all, I would call it quite an enormous victory for me today."
The benign conditions gradually deteriorated as the afternoon went on, and eventually play was suspended for more than two hours because of dangerous weather. It resumed briefly and was finally called at 7:39 last night because of fog.
Fifty-seven players were left on the course, including Angel Cabrera of Argentina at 4-under through 12 holes, reigning Masters champion Phil Mickelson at 2-under through 15 and two-time major champion Vijay Singh of Fiji, who was also 2-under through 14.
"These are optimum conditions to score in," Mickelson said. "The greens were very bumpy when we played, but when we came back out after the rain, it had knocked out some of the spike marks and they were putting very true. I hope it doesn't blow, but that's very unlikely."
Woods is hoping the wind starts to blow and this links-style course dries out, making it more treacherous and cutting down on the list of legitimate contenders.
"It eliminates guys who aren't hitting the ball well and the group who hasn't been there before, too," Woods said.
Maruyama, 34, has won three times on the PGA Tour, and nine times overseas, but has only two top-10 finishes in his 25 major championships. Jeff Maggert, who was at 2-under, has five top 10s in 11 U.S. Open appearances, including third at Bethpage two years ago.
Haas has been there many times, trying to follow in the footsteps of his uncle, Bob Goalby, who won the Masters in 1968. Haas also has to watch his son, Bill, who recently finished his college career at Wake Forest and was 3-over through 17 holes when play was called.
Still hoping to make this year's U.S. Ryder Cup team, Haas is playing some of the best golf of his career. Always a straight hitter, Haas has benefited from his work with short-game expert Stan Utley. Though there doesn't seem to be any external pressure on Haas, he appears a bit unsatisfied.
"I can't say it's the best I've ever played," said Haas, whose most recent victory came in 1993. "I'm hitting the ball longer than I ever have. I feel more confident with my putting. But until I win, I won't say it's the best I've played."
The leaders ...
Jay Haas 33-33-66
Shigeki Maruyama 34-32-66
... and selected followers
Jeff Maggert 34-34-68
Kristopher Cox 34-34-68
David Roesch 36-32-68
Ben Curtis 34-34-68
Skip Kendall 35-33-68
Kevin Stadler 35-33-68
Ernie Els 34-36-70
Fred Funk 35-35-70
Sergio Garcia 36-36-72
Tiger Woods 36-36-72
Jim Furyk 36-36-72
Davis Love III 41-35-76
David Duval 40-43-83
Note: 57 players did not finish Complete scores. Page 9E