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U.S. OPEN : Nicklaus' 67 Overshadows Leaders : Langer, Stewart, Blake Set First-Round Pace at 4-Under 66

June 16, 1989|MAL FLORENCE | Times Staff Writer

ROCHESTER, N.Y. — A few years ago, Jay Don Blake's career was at such a low point that he worked in a golf shop and hardware store to make ends meet in his hometown of St. George, Utah.

Blake had a more prestigious position Thursday, sharing the first-round lead of the U.S. Open with West German star Bernhard Langer and Payne Stewart. Each shot a 66, four under par, at Oak Hill Country Club.

The leaders, however, attracted considerably less attention than a player one stroke back.

Jack Nicklaus is, perhaps, making another startling comeback in a major tournament. In 1986, at 46, he won the Masters after some concluded that he was washed up as a dominant figure on the tour.

Now 49, the Golden Bear is trying to win his fifth U.S. Open title. The odds are seemingly against him but, for the moment, Jack is back.

Nicklaus is grouped at 67 with Scott Simpson, the former USC star and the 1987 Open champion; Tom Kite, the PGA Tour's leading money winner this year; Joey Sindelar, and Tom Pernice, the former UCLA player.

Asked if a victory here would mean more than winning the Masters in 1986, Nicklaus said: "Winning a fifth U.S. Open at the age of 49 would probably mean more, although the 1986 Masters meant a lot, too."

Nicklaus, who limits his tournament play because of his many business commitments, credited a positive attitude for his round on a day of intermittent rain.

"Today I tried to play more positively, which is the way I've played all my life," he said. "The problem the last few years is that I didn't remember how to play positively. It was a lot of fun. It shows me that I can play good at times. I wouldn't play if it wasn't still fun. I have nothing to prove except that I can still play. I'm not gullible, or dumb, enough to believe what I did today I could do for three more days."

On the positive theme, Nicklaus said: "When you stand up to a ball and you're not hitting it as well as you'd like to hit it, you say, 'Where is the best place to miss it?' rather than saying, 'That's where I want to hit it,' and hit it there."

Nicklaus knows the course. He won the PGA championship here in 1980 by seven strokes. "If I'm seven shots worse than I was in 1980, which I probably am, it at least puts me in contention," he said.

It was a rewarding round for Nicklaus on a day of low scores with the usually fast greens holding shots because of the damp conditions.

Curtis Strange, the defending champion, was in contention with a one-over-par 71. But Seve Ballesteros, regarded as one of the game's best players, shot a 75. Lee Trevino, who won the Open here in 1968 with a record four rounds of under-par golf, had a 74. Greg Norman finished at 72.

Nick Faldo, the Masters champion who came into the Open with wins in two prestigious European tournaments, shot a 68, two strokes behind the leaders.

Langer had a 31 on the front nine in a round of eight birdies, six pars and four bogeys. The 1985 Masters champion has what looks like an agonizing putting stroke. It's a cross-handed style in which he places his right hand on his left forearm to steady his stroke.

He said his method takes the wrists and hands out of the action, leaving him with more of a pendulum stroke. It was effective Thursday, prompting Langer to say, "I didn't think there were eight birdies out there."

He had an opportunity to become the sole leader, but he three-putted from 60 feet on the 18th green.

Like Langer, Stewart was dropping putts, making six birdies, including putts of six and 20 feet on the 17th and 18th holes.

Stewart, the fourth-leading money winner on the tour with $456,308 in earnings this year, is striving to win his first major.

"I don't think my career would be complete until I win a major," Stewart said. "I'm not saying I will and I'm not saying I won't."

Stewart is, perhaps, the most colorfully dressed pro with his plus fours and a variety of shirts representing NFL teams. He wore a green New York Jet shirt Thursday and said he will do the same for the Buffalo Bills, New York Giants and Cincinnati Bengals.

Like Langer he has had back problems, but he said that as long as he stays with an exercise program and watches his weight, he can play without pain. Even so, he wears what he calls an inflatable air brace around his waist to support his lower back.

Blake, who has yet to win on the tour, said he was nervous before Thursday's round. "I'm a quiet person," he said. "I'm going to try to stay as calm as I can and relax."

He said his plans for the evening were rather boring, some dinner and a little television, then bed.

Kite, 39, has earned $653,229 this year as the leading money winner. He already has two tour wins in 1989, giving him a total of 12.

In a USA Today poll of 25 golf writers, Kite received the most votes as the player most likely to win the Open. If so, it will be his first major in a 13-year career.

Kite regards the Players Championship, which he won last March in Ponte Vedra, Fla., as a major, although he realizes that others may not agree with him.

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