With no more disruptions of moving into a new home and at least momentarily cured of a case of “sunburn” from the spotlight, Nick Price is out to resume his anointed status: best golfer in the world.
Winner of both the British Open and PGA Championship last year, Price had his string broken two months ago in the Masters, where he missed the cut.
Now his juices are stirring and his gunsights are leveled on the U.S. Open. The 38-year-old native of Zimbabwe took the first step in that direction Thursday with a fourunder-par 66 to take the first-round lead at Shinnecock Hills Country Club.
“I only missed two or three greens, and I had a solid putting day,” said Price, who carved five birdies out of the rugged Long Island real estate - three of them in the last five holes.
Price’s run stood up against an afternoon assault and gave him a one-shot lead over perennial U.S. Open contender Scott Simpson, who shot 67.
Phil Mickelson’s late slide - a double-bogey at the par-five 16th and a bogey at the 17th - left the southpaw star at 68 with Greg Norman, who made his best start in 14 Opens.
Price started slowly this season after winning 10 times in the last two years, but his game picked up steam the last three times out.
“What changed was my desire,” said Price, admitting he tired of the heat so he vacated the kitchen.
“I was grateful to get out of the limelight for a while and let somebody else take it for a while. I found I wasn’t enjoying myself and my personality was changing. I got tired of people asking me to do things - it wears you down.”
Patience was the key for Price. “A lot of the time I just took the flag right out of the play, trying to put myself 25 or 30 feet on the correct side,” he said. “A lot of strategy is involved playing this course.
“If you make bogey, take it like a man and move on. The course is starting to dry out with the sun and breeze. By the time we get to the weekend, the USGA will be happy with the condition.”
The competition committee is probably licking its chops already since only 10 players broke the stern par of 70.
“And the course won’t play much easier for us,” said Simpson, who won the Open in ‘87 and was runnerup in ‘91.
Fuzzy Zoeller, in a six-man group at 69, agreed. “This is a tough damn course, I’ll tell you. It will wear you out,” he said. “Four days of this and you’ll look like Ernie Els did after last year’s playoff. It’ll flat test your nerves.”
Simpson addressed it in telling of his frequent Open success. “I make a conscious effort to have more patience and composure. You know you’re going to hit it in those dingledangles.”
That’s what happened to Mickelson, after he had taken advantage of an afternoon slacking of wind to record six birdies.
He was five-under until the 16th, where a one-iron tee shot found deep hay. “I couldn’t get a sand wedge to it,” said Mickelson, who made it a felony by three-putting.
“A typical double,” he shrugged. “The finish is a little disappointing, but it’s probably not going to be my last double-bogey this week - it isn’t that big a deal. I thought even-par would be a good round.”
Turned out it was as 17 players matched par, including Vijay Singh, Tom Watson, Lee Janzen, Tom Lehman, Tom Kite and Curtis Strange.
Another battalion of 17 is at 71, including John Daly and 55-year-old Jack Nicklaus, but defending champion Els settled for 74.
“I just didn’t play well,” he said. “I double-bogeyed the sixth hole and it made me tentative the rest of the round - a very disappointing day.”
Bill Glasson, one of the sixsome at 69, summed it up best: “Well, it’s a long tournament,” he said.
xxxx OPEN LEADERBOARD Leaders after the first round of the U.S. Open Golf Championship on the 6,944-yard, par-70 Shinnecock Hills Golf Club course in Southhampton, N.Y.: Nick Price 33-33-66 Scott Simpson 33-34-67 Phil Mickelson 34-34-68 Greg Norman 34-34-68 Jeff Maggert 33-36-69 Fuzzy Zoeller 35-34-69 Bill Glasson 35-34-69 Steve Lowery 35-34-69 Bob Tway 34-35-69 Jumbo Ozaki 35-34-69
FAST FACT The first U.S. Open winner 100 years ago received $150 and a gold medal. The top prize in this year’s tournament is $350,000.
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