Liverpool leader? Yeah, yeah, yeah

Posted: June 15, 2007

OAKMONT, Pa. - England's Nick Dougherty never had shot an under-par round in any of his five previous major starts. So naturally, he picked maybe the sternest major venue of them all to break into red numbers.

Then he actually used "easy" and "U.S. Open" in a sentence yesterday at Oakmont Country Club, which could constitute a two-stroke penalty.

"The course is barbaric," he smiled, when somebody pointed his verbal bogey out to him. "That's the funny thing about these events. It doesn't matter how you're playing. If you have an off day, you're going to embarrass yourself."

The Liverpool native, who turned 25 on May 24, did anything but. A 2-under-par 68 has him atop the leaderboard, one shot in front of Argentina's Angel Cabrera after 18 holes of the year's second major. At least for the time being, life is good.

Sometime not that long ago, his life was an ongoing party. He was one of the fortunate ones. He survived. And changed.

"I was a young man, and young men have fun," he explained. "I don't regret it. Because now I know the right way to run my life, and how to go about my professional career and get the most out of it. I [also] know what not to do.

"It's nice to go out and shoot a round like that. Because the gods are saying, 'You deserve to play better.' The U.S. Open is brutal. It tests every aspect of your game, and mentally as well.

"Obviously, the thunderstorm [on Wednesday] softened it up nicely. I'm sure come Sunday, it will be crusty and firm and extremely difficult."

Dougherty started playing at age 4. He won his first tournament 2 years later, an under-14 event. Later, he caught the eye of Nick Faldo and became his protégé. He's won once on the European Tour, in 2005. He was also an accomplished flautist; he began playing when his dad, a big-time Beatles fan and friend of Pete Best, the group's original drummer, traded in one of Paul McCartney's first guitars to buy it. Hardly seems like a fair swap.

"I don't know why he did it," Dougherty said. "Can you imagine me asking for a flute? The general idea was I was young at the time. He said, 'When you're on tour, it will entertain you. You'll be able to sit in your room and play.' I don't play anymore. I feel kind of bad. TGI Friday's is much more fun. You win some, you lose some, don't you? If I win this, I'll buy him something nice, [like] a house."

It sure makes for a nice first-day story. Reality suggests he won't remain a factor for too long. For now, though . . .

"I'm certainly not complaining," Dougherty said, gushing. "This year has been disappointing. I've led I think six tournaments of the 14 I've played at some stage. A few of them very near to the end. But I haven't finished one off.

"At the moment, I'm still working on bits and bobs, but my confidence is high. I expected to play well. You're going to have a lot of letdowns, and lots of mistakes. You have to almost just kind of roll with it."

For as far as it carries you.

"Hopefully, I can just cling on for the next 54 holes," he joked. "It means a lot to be leading the U.S. Open. It doesn't mean I'm going to win. I believe I'm a good enough golfer to contend in majors, whether it's now or this year or down the line. And hopefully, it will be starting from this week."

For those keeping score, no European has won a major since 1999. None has won this one since 1970.

Bubba Watson, who hits it long but not always straight, is tied at 70 with two-time Masters champ Jose Maria Olazabal, who's never really come close to winning this championship.

It seemed like half the free world shot 71. It actually was 16, a scrum that included defending champ Geoff Ogilvy, 2003 British Open winner Ben Curtis, 2003 U.S. Open champ Jim Furyk, Vijay Singh and Brandt Snedeker, who won the 2003 U.S. Public Links at Blue Heron Pines in Egg Harbor City, N.J.

Oops, almost forgot. Some bloke named Tiger Woods, who last won this title in 2002, is there, too. Think anyone noticed?

"It's as soft and receptive as you're possibly going to have it, and not too many of the guys are taking it to the golf course," said the world's top-ranked player. "There are [no easy shots], and no easy birdies. On most courses you play, you're going to pick up a cheap birdie here and there. There are none.

"It's easy to make bogeys and doubles. You've got to hang in there and hopefully putt well. It certainly tests you. Imagine if it didn't rain [Wednesday] night. [The USGA] gave us a chance to go ahead and post a number today."

Obviously, few could. So what happens if they don't?

"We'll find out," Tiger said.

Don't say you weren't warned. Even though you kind of get the feeling he relishes the possibilities. *

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