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Updated on June 16, 2011 at 9:35 a.m.
BETHESDA, Md. (AP) – Light rain. Heavy rough. Welcome to the 111th U.S. Open.
The season’s second major got under way Thursday morning under gray, rainy skies at Congressional Country Club, with umbrellas out as Graeme McDowell headed to the first tee box to start the defense of his title.
Johan Edfors of Sweden made three birdies over his first six holes to take the early lead at the U.S. Open.
Edfors, a European Tour player whose best finish at the U.S. Open is 27th, was at 2-under par Thursday with half the field on the course at overcast Congressional Country Club.
He was one shot ahead of a pack of 10 players, including former British Open winner Stewart Cink and former PGA champion Y.E. Yang.
Birdies, always hard to come by at a U.S. Open venue, were available around the course, and especially on the par-3 10th hole. The 218-yard downhill hole over water was supposed to be one of the toughest tests on the course, especially as a starting point for half the players. But the tee box was moved up and it yielded five birdies over the first 90 minutes of play.
Tiger Woods is out with an injury, making a normally wide-open tournament that much more unpredictable.
Among the so-called favorites are Phil Mickelson, Dustin Johnson and Rory McIlroy, who were grouped together in the glamour threesome of the afternoon.
The USGA came back to the nation’s capital for the first time since 1997, when Ernie Els won his second U.S. Open. Congressional is a long, beast of a course that normally hosts congressmen and Washington’s power set, but this week is set up for the national championship at 7,574 yards, which makes it the second-longest layout in the history of the tournament.
USGA officials weren’t able to get the course set up to playing conditions during the practice rounds because of unusually hot weather in the Washington area in the week before the U.S. Open. They were confident, however, that by the time the first round started, Congressional would be easily recognizable as an Open course – with fast greens, thick rough and not a whole lot of birdie opportunities.
It is not, by any means, a course designed to give up good scores. Knowing that, the USGA went against tradition and actually added a stroke to par, turning the sixth hole from a 490-yard par-4 – of which there are already plenty on this course – into a reachable, 555-yard par-5, albeit with tighter fairways and a green designed to reject pushed shots into a lake on the right side.
“A well-executed shot will make it to that putting green,” USGA vice president Tom O’Toole said. “A poorly executed shot will not. It’s a primary example of risk-reward. Risk: bogey or double bogey by flirting with the water hazard. The reward: a two-putt birdie or a putt at eagle for 3.”
After that, though, it’s hard to find a lot of places to make birdie. Congressional doesn’t offer any drivable par-4s, an increasingly popular USGA feature that, for instance, turned the 320-yard fourth hole at Pebble Beach last year and the downhill, 330-yard sixth at Winged Foot in 2006, into must-watch events.
The par-3s are all either long, or uphill, or over water, or some combination of all that. The par-3 10th is generating some talk this year; it used to be the 18th hole, but closing on a par-3 in 1997 turned out to be a bust, emphasized when Colin Montgomerie, in the running along with Els, waited more than 10 minutes to putt on No. 17 for fear the noise on the adjacent 18th would disrupt him.
Montgomerie missed, Els finished the tournament with a fairly anticlimactic par and the idea of finishing a major on a par-3 was tossed in the scrap heap.
So, in addition to moving that hole to the start of the back nine and making the old No. 17 the new No. 18, the club tore up the par-3 and transformed it from an uphill shot where the water wasn’t really in play to a downhill shot with a 200-yard forced carry onto a narrow green. Quite a way to kick off the round for half the field on the first two days, when the U.S. Open will use a two-tee start.
“The average guy can’t play that hole,” Mickelson said in criticizing the design. “He can’t carry that water and get it stopped on that green. So when I play that hole, 3 is a great score.”
But Cink and Colsaerts didn’t have any trouble, finding the green and making their putts to get in the red early.
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