Olin Browne, a 46-year-old native Washingtonian who very nearly gave up competitive golf last year, found a new swing instructor who helped revitalize his body and his game just in time for him to shoot a splendid 3-under 67 Thursday in the opening round of the 105th U.S. Open. On a day when the real story was the degree of difficulty on Pinehurst No. 2, which yielded only nine under-par scores from the field of 156, Browne's birdie at the 16th, the toughest hole on the premises, earned him a piece of the lead in America's national championship of golf.
Browne attended St. Albans, remains a rock-solid Redskins fan and got into the Open by virtue of a 59 in a 36-hole Open qualifier at Woodmont Country Club 10 days ago. He shares the first-round lead with Rocco Mediate, another veteran who, like Browne, has struggled with injuries, particularly a balky back in recent years.
"I'm certainly very doubtful that I'll get many more opportunities to shoot 59 anywhere," said Browne, who has had only two scores in the 60s in 49 career major championship rounds. "I would rather shoot under par at the Open than 59 screwing around at home."
Many of the game's biggest names are lurking close behind. The top nine players in the world rankings are within four shots of the lead, including No. 1 Tiger Woods (70), No. 2 Vijay Singh (70), No. 3 Ernie Els (71), No. 4 Phil Mickelson (69) and No. 5 Retief Goosen (68), the defending U.S. Open champion. No. 6 Sergio Garcia, who won the Booz Allen Classic at Congressional on Sunday, also had 71, a shot behind the man he beat four days ago, No. 7 Adam Scott, with a 70.
Mickelson, who lost by a shot to the late Payne Stewart here in 1999, celebrated his 35th birthday with a 15-foot birdie putt at the 18th hole after struggling to find the fairway throughout his round. He hit only six of 14 fairways and just nine of 18 greens in regulation, but 27 putts and a half-dozen saves from sand or chipping areas helped salvage his 69.
"I don't see how anybody will be under par in these conditions after 72 holes," Mickelson said. "We see shots this week that I haven't seen in decades. . . . It's just really hard, with greens being table-topped and the areas of being able to land the ball on a surface and get it stopped. . . . We're really close to not being able to do it."
Mickelson emphasizes he was not criticizing the course setup, a year after the U.S. Golf Association was criticized for the conditions during the final round at Shinnecock Hills. He added that it was "a fair test to everybody, and what's nice is, you can recover. I like how there's more skill brought into this setup, as hard as it is. I love it, because skill is brought into it, as opposed to luck. I like how the short game is a big aspect of it."
Woods, who had two birdies on his card and found only six fairways all day, also was anticipating tougher conditions over the next three days.
"Without a doubt, the greens will be drier, the golf course will be faster," he said. "You hit the ball in the fairway here, it's running 40, 50, 60 yards on some holes. It's going to be harder to position some of your shots. . . . I relish it any time we get to play a golf course like that. You get a reward for shooting a round in the 60s. Most of the time on tour, if you shoot high 60s, you usually get lapped. I don't think it's fun to play tournaments like that. This is a lot more fun."
Every hole on the course except the 565-yard No. 5 played to an above-par average, and the average score from the field was 74.69, almost five shots above par. How treacherous was it? Consider the plight of Jeff Maggert, vying for the early lead after playing his first 10 holes at 2 under.
At the 469-yard second hole, his approach shot missed to the right, spilling off a green that, like all 18 on this course, resembled an upside down salad bowl. His third shot hit the putting surface and rolled all the way across the green and down the other side. On his fourth shot, he tried to bump and run the ball into the slope but didn't bump it enough, and it ran right back down the hill. On his fifth shot, he putted to within eight feet, then made a tough putt for double bogey that sent him off the leader board, though he recovered to shoot 72.
Browne did not start well, with two bogeys and a birdie in his first six holes, but began moving toward the top of the leader board when he hit a 6-iron to about two feet on the 175-yard No. 9. He missed reasonably short birdie putts on his first three back-side holes, but got to 2 under with a 20-footer from just off the green at the 378-yard 13th hole.
At the brutish 16th, which averaged 4.5 strokes, Browne's tee shot landed in a decent, somewhat sandy lie in the rough. He was able to hit his second shot to within 18 feet and made the putt for one of only four birdies all day on the hole.
Mediate, 42, also has been a recent physical wreck. A year ago last March, he was home alone at Ponte Vedra Beach, Fla., when his back locked up, and he was unable to move for several hours.
"I remember having to crawl up the stairs to bed, one of those deals," he said. "I remember that like it was yesterday."
He credited a new coach, Jimmy Ballard, with helping him alter his swing to make it more back-friendly. Several weeks ago, Mediate also abandoned the long putter he used since 1991 to compensate for not being able to bend over with a standard model.
"It's been a struggle, but I think I'm right on schedule," said Mediate, who also birdied the 16th when he hit a 6-iron to eight feet. "Did I expect 67? I don't know, but I knew it was in there. The beauty of it is, you've got to keep doing it. It's so hard out there, it's so good, you can't screw up. You've just go to play really good."