"The tougher, the better," Tiger Woods had said two days before play began in the 128th British Open at Carnoustie.

With only a wee sea breeze blowing when he began at 9:30 a.m. today, a tad easier was even more acceptable. As a result, Woods, Greg Norman, Jesper Parnevik and several lesser-known players took advantage of considerably calmer conditions than they had encountered the previous day.

The miracle round of the tournament was posted early this afternoon by Jean Van De Velde, attempting to become the first Frenchman since Arnaud Massy in 1907 to win the game's oldest major championship. On what everyone now agrees is the world's most demanding course, he birdied two of his last three holes for a 3-under 68 that left him in the lead at 1-over 143 after 36 holes.

Van De Velde, 33, who has only won once on the PGA European Tour in 11 years, opened a one-shot lead over Angel Cabrera, a native of Argentina. Cabrera is known to his friends as "Pato," or "Duck," and posted a 69 -- 144, one of only four sub-70 scores.

That left him in sole possession of second place, a shot ahead of Parnevik (71 -- 145). The eccentric Swede with the funny hat and the pipestem pants has finished second twice since '94 and was fourth last year. But he said he almost walked off the course after the fifth hole because his allergies were making it so difficult for him to play.

For a while this morning, Woods, also troubled by a drippy nose and itchy contact lenses despite taking his hay fever medication, was still sniffing at a low round. But a few bad bounces on the back nine led to a respectable 72 and left him three shots off the lead at 4-over 146.

"I'm in very good shape," Woods said. "I'm only three back and looking pretty good. The golf course is going to penalize you whether you make good shots or bad shots. It's just the way it is."

Added to this tasty bouillabaisse of a Frenchman, a Duck and a Tiger was a ravenous Shark. Never mind that Norman was never able to find the fairway at the brutal 459-yard 17th. He played into the teeth of the wind and posted a triple-bogey seven, including a total miss of his second attempted shot out of the deep rough.

After taking the lead through his first 16 holes, Norman still was able to shoot 70 for a share of fourth with Woods and Sweden's Patrik Sjoland (72). Norman and Woods will be paired in the third round Saturday, and many spectators will be hard-pressed to get a peek at either player over anticipated five-deep mobs.

Other players still within five of the lead included '97 champion Justin Leonard (74) and '98 runner-up Brian Watts (73), both at 147, and Davis Love III at 74 -- 148. But Colin Montgomerie, trying to become the first Scotsman to win this title in Scotland since Tommy Armour in 1931, was not as fortunate. Montgomerie shot 76 -- 150 and said he has no chance to win, even if he's only seven off the lead.

"I'm out of the tournament now and I look forward to the PGA [at Medinah, Ill., next month]," he said. "It wasn't a difficult day, I got a great draw and I didn't capitalize on it. So we'll just look forward to Medinah, I'm afraid, because this is gone now."

Gone permanently were several well-known players, including defending champion Mark O'Meara, who finished at 15-over 157 and was heading for the airport at Edinburgh, along with three-time Open champion Nick Faldo (79 -- 157), missing the 12-over cut for the first time in 24 appearances. Tom Lehman (80 -- 156), the '96 winner, also missed the cut.

Five-time Open champion Tom Watson (73 -- 155) also was going home, despite birdies on two of his last three holes. And 19-year-old Spanish sensation Sergio Garcia improved by six shots with an 83, but finished at 30-over 172, last in the 156-man field.

Players starting this afternoon faced far more difficult conditions as winds reached 30 mph.

That's when first-round leader Rodney Pampling teed off, and was blown away. The Aussie, who shot 71 Thursday in dreadful conditions, came back with an 86. At 157, he became the only first-round leader in Open history to miss the cut.

Woods would like to make some history himself. He opened by sinking a 25-foot birdie putt from the back fringe on the first hole and turned at 2-under 34 despite a three-putt bogey from 25 feet at No. 7.

Through the first 10 holes, he never faced serious peril, but a wayward 2-iron tee shot into a fairway bunker at the 412-yard 11th forced him to blast out about 30 yards up the fairway. He failed to get up and down from 25 feet, then missed another par-saving putt from 18 feet at the 12th after hacking out of deep rough behind the green.

His only birdie on the back came at the downwind 14th. He two-putted from 20 feet to get back to 2 over, then missed a six-foot par putt at the 250-yard 16th and a 10-footer at the 487-yard 18th after a third-shot chip behind the green.

His best shot came at the virtually impregnable 17th. For the first and only time in his round, Woods used his driver, then hit what he described as a "pull-cut" way left a few feet from an ugly patch of gorse onto a path of crushed shells. He got a free lift, and was fortunate to have a decent lie on grass trampled down by passing spectators.

Nevertheless, he still had 210 yards to the pin into a howling gale, with an imposing greenside bunker guarding the front of the putting surface. He hit a 4-iron through a funnel of fans and photographers that first rocketed low, then soared over the bunker and landed 60 feet from the pin, a truly remarkable shot. He then two-putted from there, making a three-footer for a fine par.

"I played solid," Woods said. "Even the bogeys I made, I hit good shots. . . . If you can make up some spots on the leader board, you're doing pretty good because you know that over par will probably make up some ground. I've always enjoyed playing in terrible conditions -- rain, wind. . . . You have to use your repertoire of shots and not be afraid to trust your instincts. Out here, you really better trust your instincts."

CAPTION: Jean Van De Velde, who has won once on European tour in 11 years, is trying to become first Frenchman to win British Open since 1907.

CAPTION: "I'm in very good shape," Tiger Woods said. "I'm only three back and looking pretty good."