David Duval was not exactly walking around the gorgeous grounds of Pinehurst No. 2 whistling "I'm A Little Teapot" today. But the No. 1 player in the world was breathing a sigh of relief after playing 18 holes this morning and practicing chipping and putting for more than an hour before lunch.

Duval suffered second-degree burns on his right thumb and forefinger last Friday picking up a hot teapot. Until his 6:30 a.m. practice round two days before the start of the 99th U.S. Open, he hadn't taken a full swipe at a golf ball since the injury.

"I played this morning and didn't really have any problems with it," Duval said. "It's probably valid to ask me about it tomorrow, although I might not want to answer it any more. It seems like it's all I'm talking about. . . . It wasn't exactly the best of timing, but it looks like it's going to be okay."

Duval lanced the blisters Monday with a knife while walking the course with his caddie, and today both fingers were heavily taped, the same precaution he said he will take in the first round Thursday. He is treating the burn with ointment and protective NuSkin and has asked his glove sponsor to ship several right-handed models in the unlikely case he decides to use one.

"It had no effect today," Duval said. "I can't really say for Thursday what it's going to be like. But I don't see why it would be any different. It's all speculation right now, but based on today, I don't foresee it even being an issue."

There are other issues this week at this storied venue, designed by the famed Donald Ross, an architect whose work in the first half of the century is still revered throughout the world of golf.

An afternoon shower dampened things considerably, and there is rain in the forecast over the next two days, which could allow players to throw balls high onto greens and watch them stay on putting surfaces that will be slowed considerably from normal Open warp speed.

And of course, with Duval and Tiger Woods listed as Nos. 1 and 2, respectively, in the world rankings, much of the pretournament talk already has centered on a possible back-nine confrontation Sunday. Never mind that they have never played head-to-head in a final pairing since Woods turned pro in 1996 -- everyone would like to believe they can jump-start a true rivalry on this classic course.

Neither Duval's game, nor his fingers, may be up to final-round heroics, despite his protestation to the contrary. Though he has won four events this season, he is hardly tournament tested, having played only three events since finishing sixth in The Masters. He did get into contention early in the final round at the Memorial two weeks ago, only to fade to a back-nine round of 70 and a tie for third place, six shots behind Woods, the champion.

And now, Duval has to worry about his touch and feel on a course that puts a premium on creative shot-making from the shaved fringes and grassy collection areas around its contoured, humpbacked greens. If pain enters Duval's equation, the numbers may not add up to the first major championship he so dearly covets.

Woods, on the other hand, has won the past two events in which he has played, in Germany on a European PGA Tour junket that included a six-figure appearance fee, and at the Memorial, when his short game was absolutely brilliant, bailing him out of deep trouble on at least a half-dozen holes.

Woods sounded supremely confident today when he spoke about his game, honed by a week of practice back home in Orlando with coach Butch Harmon, not to mention gradual swing and grip changes over the last two seasons.

"I'm learning how to play the game," Woods said. "I'm only 23, and I have a long way to go. I recognize that. But I've come a long way as well. And I've learned by watching other players play. I've learned from my own mistakes, but I think most importantly, I'm not afraid to go out on the golf course and apply what I've learned.

"I didn't like the way I played in 1997, even though I won some tournaments [four, including The Masters]. I didn't really like it because it wasn't consistent. Anybody can win when they're hot, that's not hard. But it's hard to win when you're off. A player may not win every week, but they want to have a chance on Sunday on the back nine every single time they tee it up. Getting there means you have to be more consistent."

Woods also said he has learned to have more patience, especially in major championships when par is always a good score. In most Opens, it often is far smarter to lay up out of the rough rather than take a heroic swing for a green that likely wouldn't hold a shot out of the deep grass anyway. The Pinehurst rough is three inches and not that difficult, but keeping the ball from rolling off the green may be another story.

Harmon said Woods learned that lesson the hard way in the 1997 PGA Championship at Winged Foot. "He came of age there," Harmon said. "He learned there's such a thing as a good bogey. You'll see a lot more of that this week. After that tournament, I sent him a card every week for about two months. All it said was `Chip Out!' He's chipping out now. It must have worked.

"Tiger can really use his creativity and imagination around these greens here. He's much more consistent in his ball striking. He's confident in his swing. He's starting to putt like the Tiger of old."

U.S. Open

When: Thursday-Sunday.

Course: Pinehurst Resort and Country Club (7,175 yards, par 70), Pinehurst, N.C.

Purse: $3.5 million (winner's share $625,000).

TV: WRC-4, WBAL-11 (Thursday-Friday, 3-5 p.m.; Saturday-Sunday, 12:30-6:30 p.m.) and ESPN (Thursday-Friday, 11 a.m.-3 p.m. and 5-6:30 p.m.).

Defending champion: Lee Janzen.

CAPTION: David Duval tapes fingers during practice round, his first outing since suffering second-degree burns last Friday.