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With 65, Tiger Feelin’ Groovy

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Welcome to the first round of the British Open, where the weather was supposed to be about as dry as the inside of a bottle of ale and it wasn’t, where that bad boy called Royal Birkdale wasn’t nearly as tough to figure out as who gets the right of way at the roundabouts, and where U.S. golfers were supposed to be about as successful as U.S. soccer players.

That’s not the way it worked out Thursday on the Lancashire Coast, where cold, wet and windy weather gave way to bright sunshine, 27 players ripped up par and your leaders by one shot are Tiger Woods and John Huston.

So it’s two guys from Florida who managed to play the best on the nearly windless links course that had looked so ridiculously difficult in simply awful weather conditions earlier in the week.

Any explanation for that?

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Woods said it’s all about controlling the way the ball rotates. It requires a spin doctor, if you will. Because of this, Woods was asked to describe this procedure in technical terms when playing from the rough.

“You hit shots because the grass is longer, it tends to liquefy your grooves,” Woods said. “When the grass liquefies on you, you catch knucklers. Niekro would be proud. When you hit the fairway you can go ahead and pinch the ball.”

Of course. But if it was all about liquefied grooves and pinching golf balls for Woods to shoot his five-under 65, the explanation was different for Huston. It was magnets.

Huston sleeps on a mattress with magnets in it, supposedly to increase his blood flow and combat the tendinitis and bursitis he has in his right wrist and left shoulder.

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Huston was asked what the mattress felt like.

“Bumpy,” he said.

There were few bumps in the road on opening day at Royal Birkdale, where Woods and Huston finished the day only a shot ahead of Fred Couples, Loren Roberts and 1994 British Open champion Nick Price, who produced matching 66s.

Meanwhile, there is a scrum of five at 67--Brad Faxon, Davis Love III, Vijay Singh of Fiji, Fredrik Jacobson of Sweden and Robert Allenby of Australia.

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That means of the top 10 after the first round, six are from the United States, and eight of them are PGA Tour members--Jacobson and Allenby are the exceptions. All in all, there are 16 PGA Tour players at even par or better.

So much for the European landslide, at least for now.

Woods was four under through nine and six under through 17, but he bogeyed the 18th after he flew the green with an eight-iron. He also bogeyed the par-three 12th after missing the green with a six-iron, but the mistakes were about as rare as finding a street around here that wasn’t backed up with cars for miles.

Five of his seven birdie putts were at least 10 feet, including a 20-footer at No. 7 and a 30-footer at No. 13. But as well as Woods played with his putter, he thought he was even better when he was playing his irons.

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“I love it over here,” said Woods, who spent last week working more on his frame of mind than his golf by fishing with Mark O’Meara in Ireland and playing a little golf.

Woods said this approach “climatizes” him for the Open.

After one round, the climate around here has been pretty favorable.

“It seemed pretty easy today,” said defending champion Justin Leonard, who didn’t play like it by turning in a 73.

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But with no wind, the conditions were favorable for scoring and the numbers went much lower than expected. Love, who birdied three holes in a six-hole stretch on the back nine, hasn’t played since the U.S. Open to rest his bad back, which is the same pre-tournament routine Couples followed.

Couples’ round was highlighted by his eagle on No. 15--when he hit his driver, then his two-iron to 10 feet--and the par he made on No. 17 after knocking his drive into some very tall scruffy vegetation on the side of a hill.

From there, there was only one thing to do.

“Hack it out,” he said.

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Couples slashed at it, got the ball back in the fairway, knocked a wedge onto the green and two-putted for par.

Jacobson is a 23-year-old qualifier playing in his first British Open and hasn’t made much of a name for himself, other than to be mistaken for PGA Tour veteran Peter Jacobsen. On the European PGA Tour, the Swedish Jacobson has missed seven cuts in 13 events.

But he is a success elsewhere, on the ski slopes and hockey rink.

“It’s a lot of fun, I think,” he said.

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It’s always good to think you’re having fun even if you’re not, which may be what 24-year-old Australian Greg Chalmers was thinking on the first hole. He hit his two-iron drive far to the left, then hit his second shot farther left and bounced the ball off a truck.

Chalmers flubbed his third shot, put his fourth shot in a bunker, blasted out and two-putted for a triple-bogey seven.

His reaction?

“I was lucky to hit that truck,” he said.

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Chalmers still finished with a 71, just to show what scores were available at Birkdale. The exception was Nick Faldo, who had a 72, signed his scorecard, refused to comment and stormed off for the putting green. Perhaps he should have tried to liquefy his grooves instead.

(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX / INFOGRAPHIC)

THE LEADERS

John Huston: 34-31--65 -5

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Tiger Woods: 30-35--65 -5

Loren Roberts: 33-33--66 -4

Nick Price: 32-34--66 -4

Fred Couples: 33-33--66 -4

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Robert Allenby: 32-35--67 -3

Brad Faxon: 32-35--67 -3

Fredrik Jacobson: 35-32--67 -3

Davis Love III: 34-33--67 -3

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Vijay Singh: 32-35--67 -3

OTHERS

David Duval: 35-35--70 E

Tom Lehman: 34-37--71 +1

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Lee Westwood: 36-35--71 +1

Lee Janzen: 37-35--72 +2

Mark O’Meara: 35-37--72 +2

Nick Faldo: 34-38--72 +2

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Ernie Els: 37-35--72 +2

C. Montgomerie: 33-40--73 +3

Justin Leonard: 34-39--73 +3

John Daly: 36-37--73 +3

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