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WATSON, NICKLAUS, IRWIN START HOT AT U.S. OPEN

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Just as he did back in the '70's and '80's, Tom Watson fed on Jack Nicklaus' success.

Just as it was at Augusta and Pebble Beach in 1977 and Turnberry in 1982, Nicklaus' heroics provoked Watson to superlative efforts of his own.This time it came at Oakmont, arguably the most difficult course in the world of golf, with two - no, make that three - of the game's greatest players in the twilight of Hall of Fame careers.

Hale Irwin got into the act, too, making it an Old Folks Open despite the trying, stifling heat that sapped the strength and exhausted the patience of younger men.

First, there was Nicklaus, the Golden Bear himself, the best there ever was. At age 54 he recaptured some of the half-remembered magic that once was his alone, ran in a 40-foot birdie putt on the 18th and took the early lead alone Thursday in the first round of the 94th U.S. Open.

Then came Watson, 44, playing hours later in temperatures that reached into the mid-90's and slowed play to a crawl, more than 5 1/2 hours for the late finishers.

"I took a look at the leaderboard," Watson said, "and figured if Nicklaus can do it, Watson can do some of the same."

But his was a little better, a 3-under-par 68 against Nicklaus' 69 and a one-shot lead going into today's second round.

They were not alone, however. Irwin, 49, playing just behind Watson, just missed on a last-hole birdie that would have given him a share of the lead. Instead, it left him in a tie with Nicklaus.

South African Ernie Els, who birdied two of the last three holes, and Frank Nobilo of New Zealand, who holed a 176-yard 7-iron shot for eagle-2 on the 10th, also got in at 69, one off the pace.

The group at 70 included two-time U.S. Open winner Curtis Strange, who knocked himself out of a share of the lead with a last-hole double bogey, Japanese veteran Jumbo Ozaki, Scott Verplank and Kirk Triplett.

Australian Greg Norman matched par 71. Masters champion Jose-Maria Olazabal shot 76. So did Nick Price, the only two-time winner on the American tour this year. Defending champion Lee Janzen was one shot higher at 77.

That was the same score achieved by 64-year-old Arnold Palmer, who lost a playoff to Nicklaus in this tournament on this course 32 years ago.

Eighteen players were stranded on the course by the approach of a late-afternoon thunderstorm. They marked their positions and were scheduled to complete first-round play Friday morning. None appeared to be in position to challenge for the lead.

While Palmer, as expected, took himself out of it, Nicklaus, Watson and Irwin moved to the top.

"Always in an Open championship, experience is invaluable," Irwin, a three-time U.S. Open winner, said.

And the pace-setting trio of elders has incredible credentials in that area. They have a combined total of 145 years of age, eight U.S. Open victories, eight British Open championships, five PGAs, eight Masters titles and 163 victories around the world.

Watson, a five-time British Open champion but a non-winner in the United States since 1987, chipped in from 60 feet for one of his four birdies, one-putted for par four times and took the lead alone with a sand wedge to 3 feet on the 17th hole.

"I've been playing well, striking the ball well," he said. "On a golf course where par is a good score, I think I can compete."

He has competed - and competed well - at Oakmont before. Twice he has been in title contention in major championships and twice he has lost, in a playoff for the PGA in 1978 and as runner-up to Larry Nelson in the 1983 U.S. Open.

"Maybe this time Oakmont will be favorable to Tom Watson," he said.

Nicklaus, whose last triumph against golf's younger stars came in the 1986 Masters, called his effort "a pretty special round" on the course and in the tournament that provided him with his first professional triumph.

But he confessed to doubts that he can maintain the pace.

"It will probably surprise me if I keep my game together for four days. That will be the hardest thing for me to do simply because I haven't done it in a long time."

Irwin, however, has done if very recently, scoring a victory two months ago in the Heritage Classic.

He had to rebound from consecutive bogeys on the 12th and 13th, hitting a pitching wedge to tap-in distance on the 14th and moving within one of the lead with a 2-iron run-up shot to two feet on the 16th.