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68 EARNS HAASE A SPOT AS THE SURPRISE LEADER

Most years, Steve Haase wouldn't have even been invited to the media tent with a 4-under-par 68 at the University Hospital-Utah Open. That would have been a mediocre score, lost in the shuffle of a bunch of numbers in the 60s and likely several shots off the lead.

Yet by the end of the Friday's first round at the Willow Creek Country Club, Haase found himself alone at the top of the Utah Open leaderboard ahead of 156 golfers, much to his and everyone else's surprise.The 30-year-old from San Diego grabbed a one-shot lead over four golfers - Stansbury park pro Jeff Green, Springville's Bob Casper, ex-BYU golfer Eric Rustand and San Diego's J.B. Sneve. Another seven golfers are at 70, including former champions Perry Arthur and Larry Webb and two-time runner-up Milan Swilor, while 16 golfers are bunched at 71.

After being interviewed in the early afternoon, Haase figured his 68 wouldn't hold up for the lead. But only Green and Sneve were able to break 70 in the afternoon. Not since 1981, the year the tournament came to Willow Creek on a regular basis, have there been so few opening-day scores in the 60s.

It was strange, considering that the conditions at Willow Creek couldn't have been much better Friday with temperatures never above the mid-80s and little wind to go with the plush fairways and smooth greens.

"The greens are beautiful, the best I've played on all year," said Haase, who has played on the Hooters Tour much of this year.

Course superintendent Mel Duke was surprised that scores weren't lower. He said the pin placements weren't any harder than usual, in fact they were easier as a whole.

"I can't explain it," said Duke. "The players have said the greens are faster than usual. It's cooler today and the humidity stayed up. This place is different because the greens are faster when the moisture stays in them."

With no one breaking away Friday, it means planty of players have a shot at winning as 43 players had scores of par or better, which is within four shots of the lead.

One of those was defending champion Warren Schutte, who finished with a 72, after playing the front nine in 2-under.

Haase nearly didn't even play this year because he was upset about an incident at the 1993 Utah Open when he incurred a four-shot penalty, which he thought was unfair. He didn't play last year, but decided to come and qualify on Monday, when he shot a 70.

"I was kind of irked, but I'm back and I'm loving it," he said.

Haase got off to a "ragged start" with a bogey on the par-5 3rd hole after a chip-in birdie at No. 2. But he came back strong on the back nine with birdies at 10, 12, 14 and 17, the longest, an 18-footer at 14.

Sneve, a former University of New Mexico golfer, has played with Haase often in San Diego and is also 30 years old. He said his "touch and speed on the greens was good" as he made four birdies to go with a lone bogey.

Green had a roller-coaster round, hitting trees on six occasions, but still surviving with five birdies and two bogeys. "It's a confidence thing and I'm starting to get my confidence back," he said.

The 35-year-old Casper, son of Hall of Fame golfer Billy Casper, still has dreams of playing on the PGA Tour even though he took a job this year as a manufacturing rep and has only played in four tournaments all year.

"I didn't play from November to May and kind of got recharged," he said.

In Saturday's second round, Haase tees off at 12:50 p.m., right behind Casper at 12:40. Sneve has an 8 a.m. tee time, while Green goes off at 9:10 a.m. and Rustand at 1:50 p.m.

OPEN NOTES: In that 1981 tourney when Jimmy Blair was the winner, only three players broke 70 the first day, as Gene Torres led with a 68. The only other time since '81 that a 68 has led the opening round was in 1989 when eventual champ Neal Lancaster was a co-leader . . . Johnny Miller was busy trying to keep track of his four sons, who all played Friday. His 15-year-old, Todd, and 19-year-old, Scott, both had 73s, while 26-year-old pro John and 17-year-old Andy both shot 80 . . . Salt Lake's Jeff Kinney is the low amateur at 71 . . . The field will be cut to the low 70 and ties after Saturday's round with everyone re-paired for Sunday's final round.

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ADDITIONAL INFORMATION

Utah Open leaders

Steve Haase 68

Eric Rustand 69

Bob Casper 69

Jeff Green 69

J.B. Sneve 69