A flood of morning birdies and a deluge of afternoon rain inundated the Kemper Open yesterday, leaving the new Tournament Players Club at Avenel stadium course in Potomac ankle deep in mud, glamorous leaders and controversy.

On a day when both the cream and the creek rose to the top, defending Kemper champion Greg Norman and Tom Kite (No. 5 money-winner in PGA Tour history) shot 7-under-par 64s to take a one-shot lead over Vardon Trophy winner Scott Hoch. Class acts all.

"Scoring conditions were perfect {in the morning}," said Norman. "You'll never see better. No wind or sun. Greens softened by rain the night before. But the fairways still firm and running. The course played its shortest. The greens held everything and putted true . . . That's not saying Avenel is an easy course. It's just a unique set of conditions you probably won't see again."

Also prominent on a leader board that easily outshone that of any past Washington-area Kemper were this season's No. 2 money winner, Payne Stewart, as part of a quartet tied at 66, and Masters champion Larry Mize, who tied TPC winner Sandy Lyle at 67. Next came U.S. Open king Raymond Floyd and consistent Curtis Strange with 68s. All told, 18 men broke 70 and 22 more matched or broke par. Lots of dazzling scores, right?

Well, that's only the half of it.

Just 78 of the 156 players in the field got to finish their rounds. The rest were interrupted by rain and will pick up their rounds in progress this morning. Early morning. Very early. Gentlemen, everybody to the tees at (yawn) 6:45 a.m. Coffee will be served during your backswing.

Among those soaked when play was stopped at 2:15 p.m. were Mike Reid (3 under par through six holes) and Scott Simpson (3 under through five). Twenty-five other players were 1 or 2 under par with many holes to play. "I expect somebody will finish with a 62 or 63," said Norman.

Norman isn't much worried what anybody ultimately posts for the first round because he's in the hunt for certain. And he's angry.

"A story in USA Today said I couldn't win anywhere but Congressional," said Norman, who, despite all his famous near-misses in the majors and his worldwide victories over weak fields, has won only three events in America, two at Congressional. "That got me riled up and I played pretty well. If I play well, I can win on any course."

What spurred Norman, 32, even more was an embarrassment at the 18th green (his ninth hole of the day). After missing a five-foot birdie putt, he tried to fling the ball away left-handed in a gesture of semi-mock fury to the gallery. "It slipped," said Norman.

The ball hit an amazed Fred Couples in the stomach as he lined up his own short putt.

"You should have seen him trying to figure out what happened," said Norman. "I never felt so small in my whole life. I felt worse when he missed his putt. Freddie was very good about it, took it in good jest."

Couples recovered nicely for a 34 on his final nine for 69. Norman, however, turned scalding hot, birdieing Nos. 1, 2, 5, 6, 8, 9 and bogeying No. 4 for the only 31 of the day. "Woke me up," said Norman of his mishap.

The front nine had a salutary effect on many players, including Stewart, who had five of his seven birdies there.

"It's been a while since I made seven birdies," said the man of many knickers. "You can get it on a roll on the front, you can just go crazy. There are some birdie holes on this course, and a few eagle holes out there, too. At No. 6 (a 479-yard par-5) I hit a 4-iron (second shot). No. 14 (a 301-yard par-4) can be driven. As good as we are with wedges and sand wedges, you're going to see some guys hitting it stiff and maybe hitting it in the hole from the fairway for eagles."

Perhaps the most birdie-hungry man in the field is Hoch, who has lost plenty of sleep since shooting 78 on Sunday to give away the Memorial Tournament in Dublin, Ohio.

"I have some more to prove now than before. I really want to play good because of what happened last week," said Hoch, who birdied the first two holes and never had a bogey. "I'm playing very well. I'm having fun. Of course, playing with Lee Trevino'll make it fun. Whatever there is to learn from something like that, I hope I learned it. I can't clam up now."

Hard as it is to believe from the scores, Avenel was set up close to its maximum difficulty -- tees far back, pins tucked. "I don't think they want one of their TPC courses to be eaten up the first time," said Hoch.

Lots of devouring took place, anyway, as defenseless Avenel got the Tour stars in a feeding frenzy. "Oh, that was a fun day for sure," said Kite, who started birdie-birdie and had nine of them in all. "I'm not surprised there were low scores, but I'm sure surprised there were so many . . .

"I really like this golf course," said Kite, expressing the majority first impression. "As it matures, it will play longer and the greens will get harder. The scores here will go up {each year}. If it gets sunny, they'll even go up this weekend. Lots of holes have options on how to play them, depending on what clubs in your bag you trust the most. I think that's great. Maybe that's why a {short-hitting} Tom Kite and a Greg Norman can both shoot 64 on the same day."

Ironically, both Kite and Norman are consistent critics of courses where it takes 20-or-more under par to win and a subpar score is required to make the cut. Yet neither sees Avenel as that sort of birdie paradise.

"If you saw 10 home runs every inning, you might think the fences were too close," said Kite. "This course won't end up in that (too-easy) category . . . The only problem I have with {Avenel} is that they sure cut down a lot of trees here. Look at the before and after aerials. Why can't a stadium course have trees? Augusta National's great for spectators and it's wooded. Now they'll need years to grow back what they cut down."

"Come back in just three or four years' time and you won't recognize this course," said Norman. "The scars, the blotchy patches, will be gone. Then, Avenel will be excellent . . . a very worthy place."

A new course's first tournament day hardly could have produced more interest. For instance, Stewart called the 247-yard second hole "boring" and "ridiculous." Howard Twitty, who matched Stewart, Charlie Bolling and Chris Perry at 66, was lambasting himself for "taking a bogey on a 301-yard par-4, a hole you could par with a putter."

That's the sort of 19th hole fuss any architect loves to hear. A new course that isn't worth arguing about is seldom worth playing.

Avenel madness isn't about to stop. Here's what happens next. As soon as the 78-man dawn patrol finishes first-round play on Friday morning, it'll head back to the course immediately to play its second round. Those, like Norman, Kite and Hoch, who played early on Thursday will then start late on Friday. Very late. So late it's almost impossible any of them will finish their second round by sundown.

So, they'll be back at sunrise on Saturday to go through the same fire drill. Sunshine willing, the whole shebang will be back on schedule by Saturday afternoon.