ST. ANDREWS, Scotland - Talk about getting your feet wet at your first British Open. Notah Begay III did so yesterday on the Old Course- figuratively - and in the Swilken Burn - literally.
Making his debut in the 129th Open, Begay found himself in the lead at 7-under through 16 holes. After hitting his first two shots on the par-4 17th in the rough, Begay found himself in the water.
With his ball sitting up and his lead coming down, Begay decided to have a little fun.
"It was fun getting in the burn," Begay said later. "I thought it was just fun to go in there and get my feet wet and pitch out. You don't ever get a chance to do that."
As he was contemplating whether to hit the shot, Begay remembered a conversation he had earlier this year with Jean Van de Velde and what happened to the Frenchman on the final hole of regulation in last year's Open at Carnoustie.
"He said, 'My only regret is that I did not try to hit it out of the burn,' " recalled Begay. "So I ain't going to walk away having any regrets. I am either going to make 6 or 7 or 8 or 9."
After hitting a terrific recovery from the burn, Begay made two poor putts and wound up with the same triple bogey Van de Velde took last year. In that case, it cost Van de Velde the tournament. In this case, it only cost Begay the first-round lead.
Even a bogey on the par-4 18th hole for a 3-under par 69 didn't take the smile off Begay's face.
"This is my first under-par round in a major," said Begay, 27, who came into this week on a roll, having won two of his last three tournaments. "Granted, it could have been very, very good. But it was a learning process for a young player."
Flesch from the left
Steve Flesch wasn't aware that he could become only the second left-handed player to win a major if he continues to play as he did yesterday, shooting a 5-under par 67. Bob Charles remains the only lefty to win a major, doing it in the 1963 British Open at Royal Lytham.
Then again, he knew little about St. Andrews aside from watching the British Open on television.
"The first mistake I made was play by myself [in his first practice round]. It was just me and my caddie - two blind guys running around trying to figure it out," said Flesch. "But we got up on every tee, especially the second hole, we were asking the marshals and the people, 'Where do we hit it?' I think we figured out the lines pretty good."
Flesch is a quick study, albeit a late bloomer. After graduating from the University of Kentucky in 1990, Flesch spent five years on the Asian Tour and two more on the Nike Tour before making it to the PGA Tour on his seventh try out of qualifying school. He wound up as the tour's Rookie of the Year in 1998.
Former U.S. Open champion Curtis Strange, who is here for ABC, has called Flesch the best player on tour not to have won.
"I think Curtis might have said that two weeks ago in Chicago when I had a chance to win and did not," said Flesch, 33. "I take that as a compliment. Obviously, he thinks I'm a good enough player to think that. Really, in nine top 10s this year, I think two or three of them I had a chance of winning. I'm just trying to stay patient."
Garcia's major improvement
A year ago, Sergio Garcia opened with an 89 at Carnoustie and left the grounds crying on his mother's shoulder. He would miss the cut with an 83 in the second round, but came back to contend in the PGA Championship, finishing second to Tiger Woods.
There was no need for motherly love last night, when Garcia finished with a 4-under par 68.
Asked if this year's opening round was different from last year, Garcia said, "Yes, but this is the 129th Open Championship, not the 128th. I didn't even notice until the end, but it is only 21 shots better than the first round, not that big a difference, is it?"
And what if he won this year?
"It would be great," he said. "That would be something from the record books to go from last to first, wouldn't it? But there is a long way to go."
Funk falters on back 9
It could have been a great round for former University of Maryland golf coach Fred Funk. He, too, found himself leading during the first round at 4-under through 10 holes, but wound up making bogeys on three of the last five holes to finish at 1-under par 70.
While it was his best round in three trips to the Open - including last year, when he withdrew after an 83 the first day- Funk was not happy with the way he played the back nine.
"I'm really disappointed," said Funk, who is in the midst of one of his worst seasons since joining the PGA Tour in 1989. "I had it going, but I couldn't close it out. I hit some pretty good shots that turned out bad and some pretty bad shots that turned out worse."
Having made five birdies and one bogey in the first 10 holes - including a 40-footer for birdie on the par-4 seventh- Funk began to have problems when he put his drive on the par-5 14th in a fairway bunker. He barely got out, and made bogey.
O'Connor is top Senior
Christy O'Connor Jr. of Ireland was the low Senior Tour player yesterday, finishing at 3-under par 69. O'Connor, who became a familiar figure to fans at Hobbit's Glen Golf Club in Columbia with his victory in last year's State Farm Senior Classic, was celebrating the 30th anniversary of his first British Open here.
O'Connor missed the cut then and in his next two trips to St. Andrews before finishing tied for 25th in 1990. Another round like yesterday and O'Connor will not only make the cut, but also might be in the hunt. O'Connor has finished in the top 10 three times in the British Open, most recently a tie for third at Sandwich in 1985.
"I really enjoyed it. It's the first time in my life I really enjoyed it," said O'Connor, 51.
Trouble for Lawrie
Defending champion Paul Lawrie of Scotland, who injured his wrist in a freak accident while giving a youth clinic here Tuesday, shot an opening-round 82. It was the worst first-round score by a defending champion since Walter Hagen shot 77 in 1924.