SOUTHAMPTON, N.Y. -- Nick Price spent more than a decade grinding away in obscurity, trying to become the best golfer in the world. But once he got there last summer, by winning back-to-back major championships, Price found the burden too much to carry.
It cost him most of his privacy.
It began to change his personality.
And, most of all, it affected his game. After becoming the most dominant player on the PGA Tour the past two years, Price struggled the first three months this year. He bottomed out this ++ spring, missing the cut at the Masters and later at the Houston Open. He went home to Florida, hoping that a three-week break would help rejuvenate him.
"What has been missing is my desire," said Price. "I was actually very grateful to get out of the spotlight for about three months. I wanted someone else to take the heat for a while. I didn't like it. I have been in it for 18 months now and every time I go out, people would expect me to play well. It just wore me down."
After showing flashes the past three weeks, Price displayed even more substance yesterday. A near-perfect round of 4-under-par 66 put Price back where he doesn't want to be -- in the brightest of spotlights. And where he does want to be: at the top of the leader board in the 95th Open at Shinnecock Hills Golf Club.
Price, who came within a lipped-out 6-footer for birdie on the 18th hole of tying the course record, leads former Open champion Scott Simpson by one shot. Greg Norman, who led the 1986 Open here after three rounds, is two shots behind and tied with Phil Mickelson.
"You know, you break 70 on this course and you have played your tail off, and today was no exception," said Price, 38, the reigning PGA Tour Player of the Year who won last year's British Open and PGA Championship. "It was one of the better rounds I have played all year, but this is a very, very hard golf course. It requires a lot of patience, so I wasn't thinking of any records today."
On a day when a blazing sun finally began to dry out a course drenched by rains earlier in the week, only 10 players managed to break par. Six players are at 69, including former Masters champion Fuzzy Zoeller and former PGA champion Bob Tway, the first-round leader here nine years ago.
But there are 18 more at even par, including former Open champions Tom Watson, Tom Kite and Lee Janzen, as well as former two-time champion Curtis Strange. Among those at 1-over 71 is four-time Open champion Jack Nicklaus and former PGA champion John Daly. Defending champion Ernie Els of South Africa and 1986 Open champion Ray Floyd both finished with 74.
"Someone's always going to shoot a 66 in the opening round of a major championship," said Norman, whose bogeyless round yielded his best opening score in 14 trips to the Open. "Obviously with a good player like Nick, you want to give yourself a chance to stay around."
Said Els, who played with Price and U.S. Amateur champion Tiger Woods, "The way Nick played today, it could be his tournament."
Price's performance, which nearly ended with a string of three straight birdies, was reminiscent of what he did last year in winning the PGA Championship. After sharing the opening-round lead at Southern Hills in Tulsa with Colin Montgomerie of Scotland, Price ran away from the field to win by six shots.
"Southern Hills only happens once in -- I don't know, if it ever happens to me again, I will be very grateful," said Price, who claimed the No. 1 ranking in the world from Norman after that victory. "But Southern Hills was an exceptional six or seven days for me. I'm really not ruling it out, but I don't know if it will ever happen to me again."
If yesterday's performance brought back memories of Southern Hills for those watching Price, Simpson's round evoked snapshots of the Olympic Club in San Francisco, where he won the Open eight years ago; also, of Hazeltine outside Minne
apolis, where he lost in a playoff to Payne Stewart four years later.
Simpson, who was ranked as high as fourth on the PGA Tour the year he won the Open and finished 14th on the money list as recently as two years ago, hasn't been much of a factor at the past three Opens. He was next-to-last among those who made the cut at Pebble Beach, in large part because of an 88 in the final round. He didn't fare much better at Baltusrol two years ago (tie for 46th), or at Oakmont last year (tie for 55th).
"I'm just trying to play better," said Simpson, who has played solidly this year, including a tie for 14th last week at the Kemper Open. "I haven't played as well in the Open after the good run I had there. I don't know any reasons for it -- good or bad."
While Price rediscovered the touch that made him No. 1 -- aside from his five birdies, Price's only bogey came after he made a miraculous recovery from a strawberry patch -- it was Mickelson who appeared to be on his way to taking the opening-round lead.
But after four birdies in five holes gave him the lead at 5-under through 15, Mickelson double-bogeyed the 544-yard, par-5 16th and bogeyed the par-3 17th to finish at 2-under. It was much the way things have gone lately for Mickelson, who since winning the Northern Telecom Open in January has seen his game fall apart. He had missed the cut eight times in 14 events, including last week at Avenel.
"It definitely helps, there is no question," said Mickelson, who turns 25 today. "You get off to a poor start and you are fighting and you are pressing to make some birdies and get back into it."
Price is certainly back into it. Back where wants to be. And where he doesn't.
Nick Price .. .. .. .. .. 33-33-66 -4
and selected followers
Scott Simpson .. .. .. .. 33-34-67 -3
Phil Mickelson .. ... ... 34-34-68 -2
Greg Norman .. .. ... ... 34-34-68 -2
Jeff Maggert .. .. .. ... 33-36-69 -1
Fuzzy Zoeller .. .. .. .. 35-34-69 -1
Bill Glasson .. .. .. ... 35-34-69 -1
Steve Lowery .. .. .. ... 35-34-69 -1
Bob Tway .. .. .. ... ... 34-35-69 -1
Jumbo Ozaki .. .. ... ... 35-34-69 -1
Tom Watson .. .. .. .. .. 34-36-70 E
Jack Nicklaus .. .. .. .. 33-38-71 +1
Nick Faldo .. ... ... ... 36-36-72 +2
Ernie Els .. .. .. .. ... 37-37-74 +4
Tiger Woods .. .. ... ... 37-37-74 +4
Raymond Floyd .. .. .. .. 38-36-74 +4