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HOCH STARTS FAST, SHOOTS 31 ON FRONT 9 TO TAKE EARLY LEAD

Scott Hoch, whose missed two-foot putt in sudden death at the 1989 Masters ranks among golf's most famous blunders, shot a 5-under 31 on the front side Thursday to jump in front early in the opening round of the U.S. Open.

Hoch's 31 missed the nine-hole U.S. Open record by one shot and put him a stroke in front of Tim Simpson with less than half the field under way.Curtis Strange, meanwhile, failed to take advantage of amazingly easy scoring conditions at the Medinah Country Club in his quest for a third straight Open crown. Strange three-putted the first hole and bogeyed the fourth as well before recording a birdie at the par-5 fifth.

He was at 1-over through six holes on a mild, murky day which

followed persistent overnight rains. Play was delayed for 30 minutes at the start of the round because of the rain, and more showers were in the forecast for later in the day.

The rains softened the greens and with virtually no wind Thursday, the Medinah No. 3 course was almost defenseless.

Hoch took advantage of the serene conditions with birdies at the first three holes and then birdied the two par-5s on the front side - Nos. 5 and 7.

Simpson was 4-under through 12 and Andy Bean was 3-under through six. Isao Aoki and defending U.S. Amateur champion Chris Patton were 2-under, Aoki through 10 holes and Patton through six.

British Open champion Mark Calcavecchia was even through six holes, Tom Kite was 1-over through 10 and Greg Norman was 1-over through seven.

Among those with late tee times were Jack Nicklaus, Seve Ballesteros, Ben Crenshaw, Tom Watson, Payne Stewart and Masters champion Nick Faldo.

Hoch has finished in the top 10 four times this year and challenged at the Masters - trailing by a shot after 36 holes before shooting 73-76 to wind up 14th.

It was at last year's Masters, however, where Hoch entered the history book in an unfavorable way. He could have won the tournament by sinking a two-foot putt for par on the first hole of sudden death.

But he missed and thus gave Faldo another chance, which he made good on with a birdie putt on the second sudden-death hole.

Simpson enjoyed his best year on the PGA Tour in 1989, placing sixth on the money list with $761,597. Simpson has had another good season this year with six top 10 finishes and $329,564. But he has yet to win in 1990.

Strange came into the tournament as the first player in 39 years to have won the U.S. Open two straight years. Only one man, the relatively obscure Willie Anderson, ever has won the event three straight times.

Anderson, one of the multitude of Scotsmen who helped pioneer the game in this country, won the U.S. Open in 1903-04-05. He died five years after his last Open title at the age of 32.

"It's tough to try to peak physically and mentally for just one week, for four days," Strange said during the week leading up to the tournament. "But that's what I've tried to do. As you can imagine, there is no one here who wants to win this tournament more than I do."