The ghost of Curtis Strange shot 73 at Medinah Thursday in the first round of the U.S. Open. At least the gaunt figure, hitching his pants so they wouldn't fall down, looked like the ghost of Strange, not Strange himself.

The pressure of trying to become the first man in 85 years to win the Open three years in a row may be getting to the high-strung Strange, even affecting his metabolism.

Strange, who's described himself as "consumed" by the three-peat quest, has thought about this day for a year. Maybe he's thought too much. Something has turned brisk, sassy Curtis into a dispirited, enervated Thin Man. And at exactly the wrong time.

"Yes, I have lost some weight and it is not on purpose," Strange said tightly at a post-round news conference, as he discussed his chances of passing the dozens of players in front of him. "I'm not feelin' too sporty right now."

Later, privately, Strange said: "I'm eating like a pig and I'm losing weight like crazy. I don't know what it is. I had some stomach problems a while back, but I thought that was behind me. I'm not playing next week {in Westchester}. I'm going to find out what this is."

But he wishes he knew now. Five years ago, Ben Crenshaw, then the reigning Masters champion, suffered a similar radical weight loss that weakened his game and knocked him down to 149th on the money list. He thought his problem was nerves or some exotic psychological malady. Eventually, after a year of agony and worry, he discovered he had an easily corrected thyroid condition.

Strange may discover he has some equally correctable difficulty. But the proper pill may be diagnosed too late to help him here. The back-to-back defender did not look like a viable contender in this opening round over the easiest course in the history of Open play. Sopping wet Medinah was toothless all day, but Strange had to battle like life and death, birdieing the 18th hole, to shoot one over par rather than 75 or more.

The trim 5-foot-11 Strange, who normally weighs only 170 pounds, seems at least 10 pounds lighter, maybe more. (Strange, who doesn't want to make excuses, wasn't revealing his weight to guessers.) Thursday morning, his shots did not have their normal authority and his legendary concentration was easily broken. A fan walking a hundred yards ahead of him was enough to make him back off a shot, and his putting ritual was in tatters.

Even worse, Strange's confidence in his putting was almost nil; some of his attempts would've embarrassed an amateur. He missed one flat five-foot putt wide by six inches. By the back nine, he was slamming his club into the ground.

"I'm just trying to keep from slitting my wrists," he said, jokingly. "Because I made a putt on 18, I don't feel quite so bad. Some of you guys can't play dead, but if you sink one at 18 you want to come back the next day. One shot can feel like a lot more when it comes at the right time.

"I've got a lot of ground to make up and a lot of confidence to regain," added Strange, who finished eighth at last weekend's Western Open and seemed in tolerable form to attempt the nearly unthinkable. "I didn't putt well at all and, eventually, it affected the rest of my game. Honest to goodness, after a while you don't know if that little white ball will fit in that little brown hole.

"You don't expect to make every putt. But you expect the putts to look good, come off the face solid. You expect to give yourself a chance to make it. I was walking as soon as I hit it, because I knew I'd missed it before I'd made contact. . . . I've been pulling everything. If you knew how many right-edge putts I've missed left in the last month . . . "

So, on this crucial day with nobodies shooting lights out right and left, Strange overcompensated and started pushing to the right. What a nasty little game. "I was jammin' 'em right on through the grain."

Will Strange switch putters?

"Damn right," he said. "I got another one screamin' in the locker to get out."

Strange has a unique history of recovering spectacularly from poor-to-awful first rounds. At the 1985 Masters, he opened with an 80, yet led by three shots on the final nine before losing. Last year at Oak Hill, after an opening 71 had left him five shots off the lead and in 33rd place, Strange rebutted with a 64 on Friday. "Yes, a 64 and I'm right back in it. You don't have to be a rocket scientist to figure that out," he said, laughing. "I still don't think I've lost yet."

What Strange, and many other historic players here, lost in this opening round was a unique opportunity to shoot a spectacular score without playing fabulous golf. "Medinah was there to be taken advantage of today," said Strange. "After all the rain last night, the greens were quite slow for Open standards. The second shots played longer, but it was like throwing darts {into the greens}. Compared to the course we've been practicing on, Medinah was pretty much defenseless."

Basically, the great players in this Open field are bunched near Strange at 71-72-73. And the players ahead of them, with the exception of Scott Simpson (66), aren't the sort who cause the giants of the sport to lose much sleep. Jack Nicklaus (71) probably spoke for Greg Norman (72), Paul Azinger (72), Nick Faldo (72), Seve Ballesteros (73), Mark Calcavecchia (73), Payne Stewart (73) and Strange too when he said: "I just played fair. I need to play better."

For the time being, this 90th U.S. Open is still Curtis Strange against the world. But that may not last much longer. He has an afternoon starting time on Friday and that's always harder than playing on smooth unspiked greens in the morning. Also, unless wind and sun arrive, and they aren't predicted, conditions should stay fairly easy.

In other words, a string of Strange pars probably won't suffice. He'll need to make some putts to stay in the hunt. And Strange hasn't done that this season: He's shot one 67 and two 68s in 40 rounds.

Since last June, Strange has traveled all over the world. He's been to Australia three times and has, according to reports, made $4.3 million in outside income from his status as the first man to repeat as U.S. Open champion since Ben Hogan in 1951.

Strange always worries off the course and grinds on it. That takes a toll. Now, in the last year, he's added the pressure of worldwide capitalization on his accomplishments. That's his due. But he also appears to have paid a price.

The squinting, irritated, skinny, out-of-sync player who couldn't keep his pants hitched in this opening round bore little resemblance -- in physical appearance or procedure of play -- to the Curtis Strange who left his mark at The Country Club and Oak Hill.

The whole world of golf would love to see Strange win again. But, at the moment, it looks like the ghost of Willie Anderson is extremely safe from the ghost of Curtis Strange.