Wrapup Optional; WILL STAND as play has been suspended for the day.
OAKMONT, Pa. (AP) _ For one day at least, Jack Nicklaus was 22 again. And for one day at least, Tom Watson was his nemesis again.
On the Oakmont course where 32 years earlier he won the first of his 18 major pro championships, Nicklaus rolled in a 40-foot birdie putt on the last hole Thursday for a 2-under-par 69 in the first round of the U.S. Open.
Then he sat back and watched as challenger after challenger failed to beat that score - until four hours later when Watson birdied No. 17 to take the lead alone at 68, besting for one day at least the Oakmont course that was the site of two of his biggest disappointments.
″I see Nicklaus up there and if Jack can do it, why can’t I do it?″ Watson said about seeing Nicklaus’ 69 posted on the leaderboard.
″Maybe this will be the time Watson wins at Oakmont, who knows?″ Watson said, referring to his second-place finish here in the 1983 Open when he bogeyed 17 on the final day and finished behind Larry Nelson. He also blew a five-shot lead on the final day of the 1978 PGA at Oakmont and lost to John Mahaffey in a playoff.
The 54-year-old Nicklaus, drinking water constantly to offset the 95-degree heat, raised his arms in the air and then grabbed his sweat-drenched head in disbelief as his birdie putt fell on 18.
″All I was trying to do was figure out some way to get it close enough for two putts and I looked up and it went in,″ Nicklaus said. ″I played about 10 feet of break.″
Watson, 44, broke into an impish ear-to-ear grin when his birdie putt dropped on 17.
″It seems like I play my best on a course where par is a good score,″ Watson said. ″When it gets to a tournament like the TPC where Greg Norman was 24 under, I’m not in that ballpark.
″But under tougher conditions its seems like I’m more adept at getting up there among the leaders.″
Nicklaus was tied for second at 69 with Ernie Els, the South African who was born seven years after a 22-year-old Nicklaus won the 1962 Open in a playoff with Arnold Palmer here. Also at 69 was three-time Open winner Hale Irwin, 49, and Frank Nobilo, a 34-year-old New Zealander who has won three times on the European tour since 1988.
″My wife said to me this morning, ‘I’m going to put a spell on you.’ She said, ’You are 22. You are 22,‴ Nicklaus said.
On this day, for this magic round, Barbara Nicklaus was right, Jack was 22 again. And again he was duelling with Watson, the winner of eight majors and challenger to Nicklaus for the title of best in golf throughout the 1970s.
″Linda just said ‘Get out there and shoot a good round’ and kicked me out of the house,″ Watson said about his wife. ″Nothing is a substitute for having confidence in your swing. I’m playing well.″
Two strokes behind Watson at 70 were Jumbo Ozaki, Curtis Stange, Scott Verplank and Kirk Triplett.
Tied at par 71 were Clark Dennis, Hajime Meshiai of Japan, Colin Montgomerie of Scotland, Ben Crenshaw, Mark Calcavecchia, Don Walsworth, Mark Wurtz, Dave Rummells, Jim Thorpe, Steve Lowery, Jeff Maggert, British Open champion Greg Norman, who double-bogeyed 12, and Australian Bradley Hughes.
Two-time Masters winner Bernhard Langer was in a group at 72 along with Seve Ballesteros.
Nick Faldo, seeking to add the U.S. Open to his two Masters and three British Open titles, was in a bunch at 73, along with Tom Kite.
Defending Open champion Lee Janzen shot 77, Masters winner Jose Maria Olazabal had 76, and the 64-year-old Palmer shot 77.
Play was suspended for the day because of lightning shortly after 8 p.m. with 18 golfers still on the course, none of whom had a chance to make the leaderboard.
On this sweltering, still day, golf balls turned into tiny dots as they all but disappeared in the haze hanging on the hills and choking the river valleys of Western Pennsylvania.
Players, soaked in sweat, played at an agonizingly slow pace and left the driver in the bag as they tried to nudge 3-woods and 1-irons into the fairway and clear of the tangled, unforgiving rough.
The greens, slowed slightly by sprinklers overnight, were nonetheless treacherous.
Nicklaus and Watson, however, were every bit the match for what most players are saying is the toughest course ever at a major championship.
Nicklaus was one over after seven holes ″and then I started playing golf,″ he said.
He hit a 2-iron to three feet on the 249-yard 8th and made it for a birdie, knocked in a 20-footer on 12, rolled in a 14-footer on 14, bogeyed 16 from the back, deep rough, and finished the round with his marvelous putt on 18 which he said was ″between 35 and 40 feet.″
″This course and this tournament play well for me,″ Nicklaus said. ″I don’t have the power to play the game the way I did when I was younger, but you don’t need power here.″
Nicklaus hit the driver four times all day, and never took it out of the bag while shooting a 33 on the back nine.
″I just had a ball out there,″ Nicklaus said. ″It will surprise me if I can keep my game together for four days. I’ll probably be a little nervous out there tomorrow. I haven’t been there in a while. But I’ll just try to do the best I can.″
Watson played well, but scrambled when he had to.
″All in all, I saved myself on 3, 6, 7, 10 and 12,″ he said. ″I turned a 71 into a 68.″
Part of what Nicklaus - the man who has won six Masters, five PGAs, four U.S. Opens and three British Opens - and Watson, who has won five British Opens, two Masters and a U.S. Open, will face Friday is the crushing heat and humidity, expected to continue through Sunday’s final round.
″I had two glasses of water on every hole,″ Nicklaus said.
Els, 24, was struggling along at two over through 10 holes then birdied 11, 14, 16 and 17 before missing a six-foot birdie putt on 18 that would have given him the lead alone. He shot 32 on the back nine.
″The golf course is so hard you know that if you make level par you’ll be there,″ Els said. ″I like that.′
Els said the weather will definitely be a factor.
″This is just ridiculously hot,″ he said. ″I think the fittest man will survive by Sunday.″
On the very first hole Els showed that he understands one of the keys to Oakmont - knowing when bogey is a good score. Els missed the fairway left and instead of trying to reach the green from the deep rough, chipped back to the fairway, hit the green from 60 yards out and two-putted for bogey.
Player after player surrendered to the rough, merely punching the ball back into the fairway after a tee shot went astray.
While most players played safe irons off the tee, John Daly blasted his driver. Consistently, he was 50 yards past his playing partners. But the short-haired, almost sullen Daly, stomped his way to an 81, smoking cigarette after cigarette discreetly cupped in his hand.
Johnny Miller, who shot a final-round 63 here to win the Open in 1973, needed 81 strokes Thursday.
One victim of the heat was 310-pound Chris Patton, who quit after eight holes suffering from exhaustion.