Jay Haas has had a dozen top-25 finishes in his previous 24 U.S. Opens, including a tie for fourth in his last appearance at America's national championship of golf here at Shinnecock Hills in 1995.
The 50-year-old veteran, who has a son in the field this week, used his considerable experience Thursday to demonstrate he can still play with the younger crowd, posting a 4-under-par 66 that left him in a tie with Japan's Shigeki Maruyama for the first-round lead of the 104th U.S. Open.
On a day that began in mist, included a two-hour rain delay later in the afternoon and ended with 57 players still on the course when play was finally halted because of thick fog at 7:40 p.m., only 13 players who completed their opening rounds managed to break par of 70 on a course devoid of wind but still taking its toll on the field.
Still, hardly anyone was surprised to see Haas at the top of the leader board, least of all Tiger Woods, who managed only a desultory 72 himself.
"It is impressive," Woods said of Haas's play. "But you look at the way he's been playing. It's just the norm, isn't it? He's been playing great golf for a year and a half now. It's just a continuation. He's hitting the ball further than he ever has, but I think more than anything, he's putting great. He's rolling the ball better now than he was in his prime."
The same could not be said for David Duval, attempting to make a comeback at age 32 after a seven-month hiatus. Though he began with an enervating birdie after a 12-foot putt on the first hole and was 1 under through three holes, wayward shots on his next two holes caused unplayable lies leading to double bogeys that began a steady plunge ending with a 13-over-par round of 83, the highest score on the board.
Still, Duval insisted, "I'd call it an enormous victory for me. . . . I really felt good about a lot of shots I hit. It was just exciting. . . . I feel like I know what I'm doing again. There's some kinks to work out and rust to get rid of. I'm not tournament ready, that goes without saying. Add an Open to the mix, and it adds up to more shots. But the most important thing is I enjoyed being out there."
Woods did, too, for a while. He was 1 under through his first six holes, but three bogeys on his card left him six shots off the pace. Once again, Woods had difficulty finding fairways playing in the morning round, though he hinted that may be more due to unlucky bounces after decent shots than anything to do with his swing. He was saved by his putting, with seven one-putt greens and no three-putts. But he'll clearly have to improve after hitting only five fairways and reaching only nine greens in regulation.
"It's not the set-up, it's playing on a links course like this with a lot of mounds in it and the fairways are really firm," he said. "You're going to get some good shots that end up in the rough. I hit probably three poor drives; lost them out to the right. But other than that, I really hit some good shots that just didn't end up in the fairway. It's just the nature of the golf course."
Phil Mickelson had hardly any such problems. The Masters champion, followed by swirling galleries of adoring and occasionally loud Long Island fans, played 15 holes in 2 under par, and hated to walk off the course despite the fog all around when play was finally ended for the day. He'll have to come back at 7 a.m. with 56 others in the original field of 156.
"I know we can't see, but I'd much rather play right now rather than have it blow on Friday," he said. "I only played two holes in these conditions, and these are optimum conditions for playing. . . . I'm just loving playing golf right now. I love playing in New York. I had an awesome experience at Bethpage [two years ago when he finished second in the 2002 Open], and it's the same here."
Vijay Singh had a similar experience Thursday. The PGA Tour's leading money-winner also found himself at 2 under when he had to stop after 14 holes. And Argentina's Angel Cabrera was in excellent position, at 4 under through 12 holes.
Former Maryland golf coach Fred Funk was at 3 under through 14 holes when play was initially halted, but when he came back out he made an ugly double bogey at the 403-yard 15th hole following a wayward drive in deep rough, a sideways pitch to get out, and three putts from 12 feet. He ended with a bogey at the 18th for an even-par 70.
"To walk off with a six on that hole ," he said, "it felt like a couple of sucker punches to the gut."
That's how two-time Open champion Ernie Els likely felt after playing his first three holes in 3 over. But Els settled down, kept his poise and played his last 15 in 3 under for a round of 70.
"This golf course forces respect out of you," Els said. "You've got to play away from 50 percent of the holes. You can't go at the pins, but that's the way they've got it. You have to keep the ball in play, and that's the whole story. If you don't, you're in big trouble."
Haas played a virtually trouble-free round, and made several spectacular saves for par. The best probably came out of the greenside bunker at No. 10. When Haas took his stance, he noticed a stone just in front of his golf ball, but could do nothing about it.
"I could see that it was going to affect my shot," Haas said. "But I lobbed this thing up, it went straight in the air. The ball was going one way and the rock was going the other. The ball was about 20 feet [from the hole], the rock about eight. Tom Kite picked it up and said, 'Is this your Titleist 1? Do you want to play this one?' I made that putt and made a par save there. That kind of kept my round going."
Haas birdied the 11th hole, then made one more with a 40-foot putt at the 179-yard 17th. He had a chance to take the outright lead from Maruyama, but missed his 12-foot birdie putt at the 18th hole. Still, he had no complaints, save for people constantly wondering how he can stay so competitive at a time when he should be playing on the senior Champions Tour.
"People ask me how I feel at 50 and I don't know how you're supposed to feel," he said. "I've never thought about being 50, whether I should be doing this or doing that. People ask me if I want to be the oldest ever to qualify for the Ryder Cup. No, I just want to qualify for the Ryder Cup."