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1999 Open at Pinehurst may be very entertaining
Early rain may soften the strong course

PINEHURST, N.C. -- A soggy Pinehurst No. 2 greeted golfers this morning as play began in the U.S. Open on a course soaked by overnight rains.

Japan's Jumbo Ozaki hit a drive through the fog-shrouded first fairway into the right rough under conditions that seemed more similar to the British Open than the American version.More than a half-inch of rain fell overnight, and dozens of groundskeepers spread out before dawn to drain greens and make sure the course was in condition for the 156 golfers scheduled to tee off on the first day of play.

A light drizzle greeted the morning's first group of Ozaki, David Toms and Brandel Chamblee, and weather forecasters predicted occasional showers and possible thunderstorms throughout the day.

The weather was expected to begin clearing late in the day, though, and forecasters said conditions for the weekend should be hot and dry.

Rain was the one thing Open officials didn't want because it softens the greens, helping players hit iron shots directly at the pins perched precariously on the slopes of the famous Donald Ross design.

That didn't seem to help the first group of players, with all three making bogey on the par-4 opening hole.

For the fans who surround the greens at Pinehurst No. 2, this might be the most entertaining U.S. Open in years.

It might also prove to be the most interactive.

"The gallery is going to get some business," Davis Love III said.

While one shot common in recent Opens -- the sideways hack out of the rough -- was missing as play began Thursday in the 99th U.S. Open, a hundred others figure to replace it in and around the sloping greens of Pinehurst.

With players unafraid to go for the greens out of the relatively light rough, balls that once would be hacked back to fairways will instead be sent skyward with varying degrees of control toward the green.

The result could be that those missing the fairway could pay even worse than in the deeper rough of past Opens.

"They've done a great job of keeping the rough at a certain height where you can get aggressive," Greg Norman said. "But that aggression could come out and bite you at some time during the week."

That's precisely what Open officials would like to see on a course suddenly more vulnerable to low scores after being softened by a few days of rain.

They envision players emboldened by tame lies in the rough ricocheting balls off of greens and into galleries, leaving them nearly impossible chips back toward the hole.

"Players may be tempted to hit a long shot toward the putting green, and on that basis they have little or no control over the golf ball," said Trey Holland, who heads the Open for the United States Golf Association. "Where it ends up is going to be anybody's best guess."

Tiger Woods, for one, wants his shots to end up short, since being behind the Donald Ross-designed greens means almost certain bogey and possibly worse.

"If you get the ball in the rough and have a hot lie, I think you've got to always be conservative and put the ball short," Woods said. "You have to make sure if it does come out hot, it's not going to zip over the green."

Not that Woods or any of the world's best golfers are complaining about the course after years of playing out of ankle-deep rough.

Quite the opposite, they're bordering on ecstatic.

A lot -- 156 to be exact -- will be trying as play began this morning on the par-70 course stretched to 7,175 yards for the championship.