On the second hole of a course already rich in golfing lore, T.C. Chen today struck the greatest fairway shot in U.S. Open history.
From 256 yards on Oakland Hills' 527-yard challenge, Chen nailed a three-wood he knew would be "pretty close to the hole." When he arrived on the green, to thunderous applause, two scorekeepers told him the ball was resting in the bottom of the cup. He'd made a 2 on a par 5.
Never in 84 prior Opens had anyone scored a double eagle. Not Ben Hogan, who won the Open at Oakland Hills, in 1951; not Gene Littler in winning in the last Open here, in 1961; not Walter Hagen, who operated its pro shop in long-ago times from a chicken coop.
Three under par after two holes, Chen came on with birdie-birdie on the tough two finishing holes to take the first-round lead, by a stroke, over long-hitting Fred Couples. Yes, Couples, the man who trumped Chen's finest moment on the PGA Tour, a tie for first in the 1983 Kemper Open at Congressional, by beating him and several others in a playoff.
"So happy and surprised," Chen said of today's feat, and his position. His five-under-par 65 tied the competitive course record, set by George Archer in 1964 and matched by David Graham in the 1979 PGA.
Couples also birdied the 453-yard 18th hole and pulled three shots ahead of third-place Tom Kite, Andy Bean, Mike Reid, Jay Haas and Rick Fehr.
Those seven were the only players to break par. Still, in Hogan's Oakland Hills Open, only he and Clayton Heafner broke 70 for the entire tournament.
Among reasons for the breakthrough: the rough is not long enough to hide small animals this time, and several players are long enough, on occasion, to stagger "this monster," as Hogan supposedly called it.
So long and accurate was Couples with his driver, for instance, that he flipped a wedge 80 yards to the green on the 436-yard first hole.
Where the 140-pound Chen needed that three-wood wand to reach the second hole, Couples was on with a six-iron. Less accurate, he only made birdie.
"I had fairly easy eagle putts on both the par 5s," Couples admitted.
"This means we'll be seeing some pins in the middle of hills tomorrow," said defending champion Fuzzy Zoeller, who shot 71.
What seems to be taking shape is that the governing gurus are bringing the home run back to golf.
No longer is the U.S. Golf Association creating landing areas the size of your pantry 280 yards off the tee. No longer must those such as Couples, Seve Ballesteros and others give their driver this week off.
Rough to rough, Couples said, many fairways are about the same width, whether 240 yards off the tee or 275. Unlike '51, the frequent foul balls can be gouged to the green in '85.
Still, the Open does require exceptional shot-making -- and two familiar figures atop the leader board at the game's majors are in danger of missing the cut. Tom Watson shot 75, Jack Nicklaus 76.
On a day that began cold and blustery, eased some, then saw a brief late-afternoon thunderstorm that caused a 14-minute suspension of play, Washington-area players Larry Rentz, Gary Marlowe and Fred Funk each shot 75.
This was a somewhat typical opening for the Open. An obscure player grabbed the lead; a rather prominent one was penalized by an obscure rule; a player bounced a ball off the stands for a tap-in birdie on one hole and made 10 on the next.
"Good story on No. 2," Chen advised reporters forced to revise stories -- and dinner reservations -- when he caught and passed Couples well after 8 p.m.
Great story, T.C.
Chen, given first name Tze-Chung, is the fellow with a reputation for playing slower than a hacker fivesome, as well remembered by those present when he was one of four beaten by Couples in the '83 Kemper playoff.
Raised near one of about 30 courses in Taiwan, Chen started golf at the rather advanced age of 17 and was taught by his older brother, T.M.
This is only his second "major" tournament, and his goal was a modest "trying to break 80." That was because he shot "82 or 83" in the first round of the PGA last year.
His binge was spectacular, although Rex Caldwell had seven birdies -- and an ugly triple bogey -- during a round of 71.
One of the last players off the course, Don Shirey, had one of the oddest experiences.
On the par-4 No. 15 hole, Shirey's second shot, from the rough, was sailing toward golfing jail when a section of stands suddenly jumped into its way. Ever so obligingly, the ball bounced to within a foot or so of the hole.
Lucky Shirey bagged a lucky bird.
Next hole, the golf gods got revenge. Shirey three-putted, after even more horrendous experiences, and limped off No. 16 with a 10.
Denis Watson was hit with a two-stroke penalty for, of all things, watching his ball too long as it was trying to make up its mind whether to drop into the cup at No. 8.
Yes, the aggravating ball finally flopped in. But Watson waited 35 seconds for that to happen; the rules allow just 10 seconds. He shot 72