MEDINAH, ILL., JUNE 14 -- Curtis Strange had the nervous opening round thousands of other golfers have had at the U.S. Open. That round included four bogeys, only three birdies and enough putting problems to send him directly from 18 pressure-packed holes to a session on a practice green.

Had Strange had this day almost any other year, he would still be the story of the U.S. Open. He'd still be in position to became the first man in 85 years to win three consecutive Opens and would be looking forward to three more days when every eye in the sport would be focused on him.

Strange picked a bad day to shoot an average U.S. Open opening round. He picked a day that followed a night of soaking rains, a muggy, still day when putting greens turned mushy and the traditional hard fairways stayed that way.

The result was a vulnerable golf course and a round unlike any other the U.S. Open has seen in its 90 years, this on the tournament's longest course in history and in an event that prides itself on making par a sometimes unreachable goal.

Strange ended the first day almost out of the running, shooting a one-over-par 73 and trailing leaders Tim Simpson, Jeff Sluman and Scott Simpson by seven strokes.

U.S. Opens are filled with stories of players who enjoyed one day of glory, only to be swallowed up by Friday or Saturday. None of the three leaders has won a tournament this season, and only Scott Simpson, who is not related to Tim Simpson, has ever won a major championship -- the 1987 U.S. Open.

Still, what Strange must find forbidding is that he not only trails these three players, who blistered Medinah with course-record 66s, but that 34 other golfers are also in front of him.

"I've got a lot of ground to make up," he said. "I'm not feeling too sporty right now."

Instead, this was a day for other heroes. Lots of them. Thirty-nine players broke par, shattering the mark of 24 established in the second round of the 1985 Open at Oakland Hills Country Club in Birmingham, Mich.

The Simpsons and Sluman led, but dozens of others were in contention, including Steve Jones and Mike Donald, one shot back at 67; Mark Brooks and John Huston at 68; Billy Ray Brown, Emlyn Aubrey, Bob Tway and Hale Irwin at 69. Ten others were within four strokes and 16 more were within five.

Strange wasn't the only familiar name to have problems. Jack Nicklaus struggled after a fast start and finished with a 71. Greg Norman, the tour's leading money winner, and Masters champion Nick Faldo were six strokes back at 72.

"I was playing an entirely different course from the three previous practice rounds," Sluman said.

His best performance this season was a second-place finish at the Greater Greensboro Open. He has missed the cut in five tournaments and finished virtually out of the money every other time.

Today, he birdied Nos. 4, 5, 8, 10 and 11 and didn't have a bogey. He played Medinah like it's supposed to be played -- cautiously and in the middle of the fairways.

But the golfer a lot of people will be watching the next couple of days will be Scott Simpson, who, at 34, has come about as close as anyone to winning three Opens. Since winning in 1987, he has finished sixth twice, but his three-year total score has been 839 -- the same as Strange's three-year total.

"Maybe this tournament fits my game," he said. "I get keyed up here and have looked up to this tournament since I was a kid. I love the courses they pick. I can't think of any one of them I haven't liked. They're carved out of trees and they're tough. They reward you if you hit a good stroke and penalize you if you hit a bad one."

His task was more difficult since he was the only one of the leaders to begin play in the afternoon. Of the 39 players who broke par, 23 started in the morning. By the time Scott Simpson arrived, the record-setting scores were being posted.

He went out and promptly bogeyed the first hole, then birdied Nos. 2, 6, 7, 10, 11, 14 and 15.

And he came close to something even more spectacular, missing a 10-foot putt on No. 17 and just missing a 20-footer on No. 18.

Rains delayed the start of play by 30 minutes and Tim Simpson took advantage of the conditions by going out and playing something approaching a perfect round. He didn't miss a fairway or a green all day and threw himself into a position he hasn't been in too often (he shot 64 to lead the Masters for one day, but followed with a 78).

Although he hasn't won in 1990 and missed the Open cuts in 1988 and 1989, Tim Simpson was the PGA Tour's sixth-leading money winner in 1989. The tour knows him for having one of its best iron games, but today he played the classic Open round -- hitting his drives straight and pushing his iron shots close to the pins.

He proved again that sometimes less is more. A career that hadn't raised an eyebrow turned around 3 1/2 years ago when his daughter, Katie, almost died during birth. Eighteen months later, he changed his approach to putting, and since then, he has been one of the tour's most consistent players.

"I was consumed by golf," he said, "and after Katie lived, I promised myself I wouldn't let it control me. I still care and I still work hard, but it's not everything."

He proved that in preparing for this Open. He went salmon fishing in Alaska for two weeks, returning to his Atlanta home on Monday long enough to fetch clubs and clothes.

He finished the day without a bogey. He began with a birdie on the third hole, a 412-yard toughie that, he said, "started my day off. I hit a driver perfect and was right there the rest of the way." He birdied Nos. 3, 5, 6, 10, 14 and 17.

"I played awfully solid," he said. "Anyone wants a round like this, but to have it in a major is really special. I hadn't hit a ball in 11 days when I got here."

More rains were in the forecast, although U.S. Golf Association officials believe the course needs only about a half day of sun and wind to turn Medinah back into the obstacle course it was expected to be.

"Medinah will ultimately win out," Nicklaus said. "The guys who started early today will play late tomorrow. Some of them might break 280 {eight under par}. Maybe no one will break 290. That's still possible. All that has to happen is for the greens to dry out."