OAKMONT, PA – Even though only two players were under par, the players were bloodied but not bowed as the rainstorm that blew through Wednesday evening at least softened things up so they could have soft enough targets to hold the greens.
Late Wednesday, the greens were beginning to develop that shine; the dry almost crusty veneer they get after being pounded all day by the sun. They baked and hardened and players were in the mumble tank even before they began. But as the evening wore on, a fierce electrical storm battered Oakmont with marble sized hail, sheets of rain and buffeting winds. The press tent – seemingly a bulwark against the elements actually swayed and had one small leak.
But between the rain and the short length of several par-4s, scores were in bunches. Day 1 ended with unknown Englishman Nick Dougherty leading. Not only was his round unconventional for a 68 at Oakmont – he chipped putted lights out over some of the most severe greens in America, but he floored the nation in his press conference, saying “The U.S. Open is my favorite tournament to play, which is unusual because I’m British. So you think it would be the British Open, but Pinehurst is the most special week I’ve ever had on a golf course and this here is fabulous.”
Strange names are often seen on top of the leaderboard early in the U.S. Open. One year Jim Thorpe led and everyone wanted to know if he ran track. Another year, Bill Rogers and George Burns led and everyone asked if they ran marathons and told jokes. In still another U.S. Open, Bruce Devlin left and people asked him what he was doing outside the broadcast booth and could they bum a smoke.
Although Dougherty has a second, third and fourth place finish on the European Tour already this year, he is not the odds-on favorite to run wire-to-wire and indeed lost several shots to par early, but his affable personality and playing to the crowd won him friends. “I love the fun. You Americans are noisier than us. I like that, I love the atmosphere.”
Instead a mix of Europeans and grinders pepper the leaderboard, along with Tiger Woods of course. Jim Furyk, winner in 2003 and runner up last year also fired a 71. “I think the rain had a little to do with scoring ….we got quite a bit of rain in a short time and it helped on the greens. You could stop the ball and it wasn’t releasing out as much.”
Furyk again credited his phlegmatic demeanor and laser accuracy with his hot start. “If I hit the ball in the fairways, I grind it out. My strengths are hitting the ball accurately and doing well with my wedges and putter and those are important in the U.S. Open,” he noted with a knowing nod of his head. “If you hit it in the rough, it will catch up with you. Maybe not the first day, but eventually.”
Slugger Bubba Watson agreed with part with Furyk’s assessment adding “The goal is no doubles” but he could take another cue from the major winning Furyk – keep a level head during this long hot grind. He made a long putt to save bogey on number 1, his tenth hole of the day. “The marshals let some people walk through the fairway while was getting ready to hit and I had to wait. I have no patience and hate waiting, so I let it get to me.”
That is not the way to win the U.S. Open, where one mistake can end your week in a heartbeat. “Just keep your head down and keep plugging away” advised England’s Luke Donald, another European looking to break the thirty-seven year draught in this tournament endured by European players..
Still, several Europeans have a shot. As we near the end of day two, Paul Casey shot 66 to move to +3. Sweden’s Peter Hanson stands at +2 nearnig the end of his second round. Justin Rose shot a pair of 71s to stay at +2 With Aaron Baddely, among others.
In 1973 an intense electrical storm nearly blew down the media tent. Then a tempestuous Johnny Miller brought down far more cataclysm than any thunderstorm could. Was it an omen, then when early Wednesday evening pebbles of hail, torrents of rain and peals of thunder buffeted Oakmont? Was it a harbinger of another record setting performance? Will a European finally close the deal. They show signs they have adapted to both the Open grinder mentality and have embraced the linksier feel of Oakmont. Finally, it’s the U.S. the easiest major to back into. For a real confluence of the unexpected, Peter Hanson, playing in his first major may not hear the clock strike midnight. Anything can and does happen here.
You know it’s gonna get stranger, so lets get on with the show.