U.S. OPEN : Price Makes the Best of a Rough Day : Golf: He shoots 66, good for one-shot lead over Simpson. Only 10 players break par.

TIMES STAFF WRITER

The world's best golfers teed it up Thursday at Shinnecock Hills and once again found the place hard to spell and even harder to play.

The U.S. Open, which is usually a four-day experience in pain and suffering, began extracting equal amounts of both under friendly skies at gleaming Shinnecock, where a sunny disposition masked the course's diabolical nature.

John Daly wasn't fooled.

"This is the hardest golf course in the world," Daly said.

Maybe he's right. Of the 156 players in the field, only 10 broke par.

It was a small band, all right, led by Nick Price, who shot a four-under 66 to assume a one-shot lead over Scott Simpson.

Phil Mickelson and Greg Norman are two shots behind Price after opening with 68s.

There is a six-way tie at 69, a group that features Fuzzy Zoeller and includes Bob Tway, Jeff Maggert, Bill Glasson, Steve Lowery and Jumbo Ozaki.

Price has won the British Open and the PGA Championship twice, but he has not won a U.S. Open. If he can stay under par for the next three days, Price has a chance to correct that omission.

Chances are that Shinnecock will have something to say about it, though. There was little wind Thursday and four days of rain had made the greens soft and slow, which is about as nice as Shinnecock can be.

And there still was a whole lot of struggling going on.

Price was one under after a bogey on the par-four 12th when an errant second shot found the thick grass. It was one of only three greens Price missed all day. He missed only two fairways.

But Price birdied three of the last five holes, sinking a 25-foot putt on on the par-three 17th.

Price signed his scorecard with a great sense of relief.

"You break 70 on this golf course and you have played your tail off," he said. "It was one of the better rounds I have played all year, but this is a very, very hard golf course."

Shinnecock's casualties were many.

Fred Couples shot a 77, including a memorable six-hole stretch on the back nine that went like this: bogey, double bogey, birdie, double bogey, bogey, bogey.

Daly, who shot a 71, knows what can happen when you make the turn at Shinnecock.

"The back nine scares me to death," he said.

Mickelson should have been petrified. Sailing along with the lead at five under when he reached the 16th, Mickelson had a double-bogey seven, bogeyed the 17th and had suddenly lost three shots.

After Mickelson's one-iron off the tee at the 16th found the rough, he missed the green and wound up three-putting.

"I am not the only one who is going to make a double out there this week," Mickelson said.

Others considered themselves fortunate, Tom Watson among them. He shot a 70, thanks to a 12-foot birdie putt on the last hole.

"It'll make the dinner taste a lot better tonight," he said. "Par is a good score and that's a good start."

Price's 66 was a lot better than good, even if the conditions were about as favorable as Shinnecock will allow.

It was only one shot off the course record held by Mark Calcavecchia, Lanny Wadkins and Chip Beck. Price could have tied it if he had made a six-foot birdie putt at the last, but he missed it.

"I felt like I had a course record anyway," he said.

Good strategy and hitting the ball well are the keys, Price said, but you've got to do both at the same time.

"It's great having a good strategy, but if you are not hitting the ball very well, you are still going to shoot 80 out there," he said.

Simpson won the U.S. Open in 1987 and was second to Payne Stewart in 1991, but he hasn't finished higher than 46th in the last three years.

There's nothing like the U.S. Open to get him going, he said, mainly because he changes the way he does business on the course.

"I probably practice a little harder and make a conscious effort to concentrate more," he said. "You need to think all the way around the golf course."

Some may not be able to think and play at the same time, but at Shinnecock, it's probably a good idea to try.

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U.S. Open Notes

After Karen Murchison had dropped her younger children off at the Shinnecock nursery, she saw the scoreboard for the first time. Tied at the time for the first-round lead were Nick Price and her husband, Bill Murchison. "I was so excited, I almost cried," she said. The Murchisons have eight children, one of them daughter Jennifer, 14, who caddied for her 38-year-old dad, playing in his first Open. But after a 33 on the front, Murchison had a double bogey on No. 13 and a quadruple-bogey eight on the 18th, finishing with a 43 on the back and a 76.

After spending the afternoon in the sun and shooting one-under 69, Fuzzy Zoeller tried out some new golf philosophy. Said Zoeller, the 1984 Open champion: "One day the ball bounces one way and the next day it bounces the other. It's a crazy game." . . . Tiger Woods won't argue with that. Woods had five birdies, but still shot 74. He made par on the first hole and didn't make another until the 12th. Playing in his first Open, Woods reacted calmly. When asked what he was thinking on the first tee, Woods said, "Trying to hit a one-iron right down the middle. That's about it."

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