Proud old Pinehurst No. 2 preserved its dignity despite a day-long assault on its soggy greens today in the first round of the 99th U.S. Open. When play ended early this evening, four players owned a share of the lead at a rather modest 3-under 67, including David Duval and Phil Mickelson, still stalking their first major championship.

Duval, the No. 1-ranked player in the world with four PGA Tour victories this season, showed no ill effects from singeing his right thumb and forefinger last Friday when he picked up a hot tea kettle. And Mickelson, with a beeper in his bag to alert him when his wife goes into labor with their first child, hardly looked nervous as he paced around these grounds.

Joining them at the top of the board were two lesser-known tour regulars: Billy Mayfair, whose loopy inside-out, slicing putting stroke is among the ugliest -- and most effective -- in the game, and Paul Goydos, a former substitute schoolteacher in Long Beach, Calif.

Lurking was Tiger Woods, after a day of loose shots, major mood swings, a blast from a bunker at No. 7 that rolled back down to his feet and numerous par-saving putts. He birdied his last two holes and was in a group of five players at 68 that included two-time major champion John Daly and '91 Open winner Payne Stewart, the runner-up to Lee Janzen last year at Olympic Club in San Francisco.

"I'm feeling very happy," Woods said. "If you saw me play today, you'd say no way he could have shot the number I shot. It wasn't a pretty round, but I scored, and that's something I've always been able to do. I just didn't hit the ball as good as I'd like."

Daly didn't either when he got to the 18th tee, trying to finish the round at 3 under or better. He battered his ball into a strand of trees down the right side of the fairway with such force that it kicked across to a dicey lie on the left side less than 100 yards from the tee.

He was forced to lay up with his second shot at the challenging 446-yard finishing hole, and his third shot landed 20 feet short of the cup. His par putt was a good two feet short. Still, for a man whose season has included missing two cuts and withdrawing twice in his last four events, Daly was not complaining. He was especially happy about playing a venue that allowed him to hit his driver on 13 of 14 holes.

"I don't know where it came from," Daly said. "I'm about as much in shock as everyone else is. To birdie the first three holes in the U.S. Open doesn't happen much. I made a 10-footer for par at number 4 and I started feeling real good about it. . . . I just seem to focus better in majors. I don't know why, I just do. It's a lot more fun to play the way golf is meant to be played and not hitting 5-irons off the tee."

Daly began the '98 Open with a 69, followed by rounds of 75, 75 and 78 that left him at 17 over, tied for 53rd. He was asked how he would approach Friday's round, considering his recent tendency to blow up, including a six-putt from eight feet and a withdrawal at the Memorial two weeks ago.

"The thing with me is, I don't know who's going to show up tomorrow, it's a little scary," he said. "I just want to soak this in and pat myself on the back for a round I needed for my self-esteem."

Standing tallest of all this long day that began in gloomy mist and rain and ended in the first sunshine seen here since Monday was the storied old Donald Ross course itself.

While the greens were soft and semi-slow by Open standards, three days of rain also left fairways waterlogged and three-inch rough heavy with moisture. Rarely did balls roll more than a few yards past their landing points, and many players said the course played at least two clubs longer on most shots to the green than they had encountered during the practice rounds.

Only 23 players in the field of 156 broke par today, and a number of big-time players quickly fell down the board. Greg Norman and Fred Couples were in at 73, Janzen began with a 74, Masters champion Jose Maria Olazabal shot 75 and four-time champion Jack Nicklaus, still recovering from hip replacement surgery in January, had a 78, matching his playing partner, two-time Open winner Curtis Strange.

In the hunt were a number of former major champions, including Justin Leonard and Vijay Singh at 69 and local favorite Davis Love III, a former University of North Carolina standout, at 70. Two-time Open winner Ernie Els posted a 72, as did Scotland's Colin Montgomerie, trying to become the first European since England's Tony Jacklin in 1970 to win America's national championship, as well as his first major.

Duval and Mickelson played in an early threesome with Paraguay's Carlos Franco, who had six straight one-putt greens in his round of 69. Duval began shakily, pushing his drive into the right rough, but made the first green on his second shot and took two putts from 70 feet to save par.

From then on, he was a model of consistency, with no bogeys or spectacular par saves on his card. Two birdies in his last four holes got him to 3 under, six days after he suffered second-degree burns on two of his fingers, which were protected today by tape and gauze.

"All in all, I'd be content to do that for three more days," said Duval, adding that he felt no pain. "Purely off ball striking, it's probably the best [Open] round I've had."

Mickelson's 67 had a tad more flair, with five birdies, including a chip-in from off the green at the brutish 482-yard par-4 fifth hole, and two bogeys. He kept a share of the lead by sinking a tricky 15-footer to save par at the 18th, and was soon on the phone home to Phoenix to his wife, Amy, who is expecting their first child June 30.

Mickelson has a beeper in his bag with a special baby alert code, and said today that if the code comes through, he will hop on a private jet bound for home no matter where he is on the course or what his score might be.

"If it goes off, I'm outta here," he said. "That's something I don't want to miss. I have a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to be there. The U.S. Open takes place every year."

CAPTION: John Daly roars out of the gates in the first round with three straight birdies, but finds some trouble later -- these trees at the 11th hole. He finished the day at 2 under, one shot back.

CAPTION: "If you saw me play today, you'd say no way he could have shot" a 2-under 68, Tiger Woods said.