Dougherty, a 25-year-old former flute player from Liverpool, England, headed the mini-pack with a 2-under-par 68. Argentina's Angel Cabrera, who, like Dougherty, played in the morning, shot a 69. One, two, that's it.
And just a pair came in at even-par 70 - two-time Masters champion Jose Maria Olazabal and long-hitting Bubba Watson.
The course received four-tenths of an inch of rain on Wednesday evening. The United States Golf Association said it was unsuccessful in restoring the green speeds because of the moisture, and disclosed they were down an average of six inches from the desired readings of 13.5 to 14.5 on the Stimpmeter.
"It's as soft and receptive as you're possibly going to have it, and not too many of the guys are taking advantage of the golf course," Tiger Woods said.
Woods was correct on that count. Two-time winner Retief Goosen, Adam Scott and Colin Montgomerie each shot 76. Sergio Garcia and Henrik Stenson floundered to 79s.
Woods was bunched with 15 other players at 71, including defending champion Geoff Ogilvy, Jim Furyk, Vijay Singh and crowd favorite Fred Funk, who was celebrating his 51st birthday.
The course average for the day came in at 75.320. Four holes - the first, eighth, ninth and 18th - each recorded fewer than 10 birdies, and only three were posted at No. 9. Only one hole, the par-5 fourth, played under par.
Dougherty, a protégé as a junior player of Nick Faldo's, sank three of his four birdies on the back nine in carding his first sub-par round in six appearances in majors. He had only 11 putts on his incoming nine.
"I didn't actually play that well tee to green, but, obviously, I was hitting it in the right places when I missed," he said. "My short game is red-hot, as it has been recently. I putted solid. So in all, I'm delighted. That's a great start."
Dougherty used to play the flute. In fact, his father, a personal friend of Pete Best's, the so-called fifth Beatle, sold a guitar that once belonged to Paul McCartney to buy a flute for his son.
"I don't know why he did it; it's his own fault," Dougherty said, laughing. "His general idea was because I was young at the time and he said, 'When you're on tour, it will entertain you, to be able to sit in your room and play.' You can imagine it, can't you? T.G.I. Friday's is much more fun.
"I feel kind of bad. You win some, you lose some. I'll get him something better. If I win this, I'll buy him something nice, a house or something."
Cabrera, who hasn't missed a cut in seven previous Opens, was the only contestant to get to 3 under during his round thanks to birdies at 2, 4 and 5, but he posted only one more after that against three bogeys.
Olazabal said the golf course was there for the taking because of the softer greens that he called "solid rock" when he played a practice round Wednesday. He warned of the peril to come.
"Imagine if we don't get any rain and the greens get firmer and firmer by the weekend. It's going to be difficult out there," Olazabal said.
That has to be in the back of everyone's mind.
"I'm sure the USGA will be hoping for sunshine to dry this out," Dougherty said, "and I'm sure come Sunday it will be nice and crusty and firm, and it will be extremely difficult."
Contact staff writer Joe Juliano at 215-854-4494 or email@example.com.