OAKMONT, Pa. -- The U.S. Open is usually about fast greens and slow rounds, about high numbers and low thresholds, about heat and humility. During a span of nearly three decades that began here in 1962 and ended four years ago, it has also been about Jack Nicklaus and Tom Watson, Hale Irwin and Curtis Strange.
Having combined for 10 Open championships -- four of them by Nicklaus -- four of the greatest players in the tournament's history went back to the future yesterday in the opening round of the 94th Open at Oakmont Country Club.
Watson's 3-under-par 68 was one shot better than Nicklaus and Irwin, as well as two foreigners, Ernie Els of South Africa and Open rookie Frank Nobilo of New Zealand. Four others, including Strange, are two shots behind at 1-under 70. Defending champion Lee Janzen shot an opening-round 77.
Nicklaus, 54, has wonderful memories of Oakmont, where he won his first Open and first pro tournament 32 years ago, but Watson's recollections here are bittersweet. He lost the 1978 PGA Championship to John Mahaffey and the 1983 Open to Larry Nelson, both times after holding leads on the back nine in the final round.
"It doesn't owe me anything," said Watson, 44, nearly seven years removed from his last victory, 11 since the last of his eight major championships and 12 since he won the Open by beating Nicklaus with the famous chip-in on the 71st hole at Pebble Beach. "I'm very happy with the way I've played here. Maybe this will be the time Watson wins at Oakmont."
Said Irwin, 49, who became the oldest Open champion when he won the last of his three titles at Medinah in 1990, "It's a tip of the hat to Jack and Tom. I think Tom's on a bit of a mission, having been denied here in the past."
On a day when the nearly 100-degree heat proved as suffocating as a course many consider the most difficult in the Open rotation, a day when five-hour rounds were the norm and several of the world's best players wilted down the stretch, Nicklaus and Watson finished with exclamation points. Nicklaus made a 40-foot birdie putt on the 18th hole to take the early lead, but Watson made a 3-foot birdie at 17 a few hours later to recapture it.
Though Watson has resurrected his game in the past year after a long slump, Nicklaus has seen his legendary career steadily decline. He has missed the cut at all six regular tour events he has played in this year, and he has been indifferent about his life on the Senior Tour.
"My wife came up to me this morning and said, 'I'm putting a spell on you,' " Nicklaus recalled with a laugh. "She kept saying, 'You're 22. . . . you're 22.'. . . . I always feel like I'm 22. But I don't always play like I'm 22."
But yesterday, he did. It not only shocked those who have sadly watched the greatest player in history struggle, it surprised Nicklaus as well. After two mediocre practice rounds, including one with Irwin and another with Arnold Palmer that looked more like nostalgia than preparation, Nicklaus started feeling better about his game at the practice range Wednesday night.
"I'm amazed at what I was able to do today," Nicklaus said after what was his best round of the year. "I've played absolute rubbish for the last 2 1/2 years. It will surprise me if I keep my $$ game together for four days, because I haven't done it for awhile."
Nicklaus wasn't the only one to provide a blast from the past. Strange, 39, did a pretty good job as well. Looking for his first tour victory since back-to-back Open titles in 1989 and 1990 made him the first player to successfully defend since Ben Hogan, Strange was leading the tournament at 3-under when he reached the 18th tee.
But after driving into ankle-deep rough, and skulling his approach to the 452-yard par-4 into a bunker, Strange had a double-bogey 6. It didn't ruin what he called his "best round in a long time," but it left Strange with an odd mix of emotions.
Asked if he was happy to be back in the hunt, Strange shot back, "This is only Thursday at the Open. You're not in the hunt on Thursday, you're in contention. I played a very, very solid round. Hopefully, I can sleep on that instead of what happened at 18. We'll find out later in the week [if it mattered]. Everybody will go and make a double-bogey somewhere out there this week."
Strange wasn't the only player on the leader board yesterday to fall after a double-bogey. Colin Montgomerie of Scotland -- who finished third in his first Open, two years ago at Pebble Beach -- was at 3-under before a double-bogey at 15 and a bogey at 18 brought him back to even par. So did Greg Norman (71), who was 2-under when he double-bogeyed the 598-yard, par-5 12th.
And then there was Japan's Jumbo Ozaki, 4-under through nine holes, hitting the wall with two bogeys and a double-bogey in the next five holes before a 50-foot birdie at 18 brought him back to 1-under 70. Asked what would happen if he went on to win, Ozaki said, "It would be like becoming President of the United States. One of my final dreams is to win a major title and to be respected by the top players."
Nicklaus still holds dreams of another victory, but he is realistic about his chances, and a tad melancholy about his remarkable career.
As he stood on the tee at Oakmont's 249-yard, par-3 eighth hole, gazing at his ball that stopped three feet from the hole, Nicklaus smiled.
"That used to be someone I know," he said.
The same thought was running through a few famous heads at Oakmont yesterday.
The leader . . .
Tom Watson 34-34-68
, . . . and selected followers
Jack Nicklaus .. .. .. 36-33-69
Ernie Els .. .. .. ... 37-32-69
Frank Nobilo .. .. ... 36-33-69
Hale Irwin .. .. .. .. 34-35-69
Jumbo Ozaki ... ... .. 32-38-70
Curtis Strange ... ... 34-36-70
Scott Verplank ... ... 35-35-70
Kirk Triplett .. .. .. 34-36-70
Curtis Strange ... ... 34-36-70
Ben Crenshaw .. .. ... 38-33-71
Greg Norman .. ... ... 34-37-71
Fred Couples .. .. ... 37-35-72
Nick Faldo ... ... ... 37-36-73
Tom Kite .. .. ... ... 36-37-73
Payne Stewart .. .. .. 37-17-74
Fred Funk .. .. ... .. 40-34-74
Nick Price .. .. .. .. 37-39-76
Jose-Maria Olazabal .. 39-37-76
Lee Janzen .. .. .. .. 38-39-77
Arnold Palmer .. .. .. 38-39-77
Craig Stadler .. .. .. 39-39-78
John Daly .. .. ... .. 38-43-81
Complete scores, 10C