OAKMONT, Pa. — Your first round leader at the 107th U.S. Open at Oakmont Country Club is the son of a car salesman, the protege of Nick Faldo and a retired flutist. He wears a spiky, Statue of Liberty hairdo, which pokes up around his golf visor; he was once more interested in driving fast cars than driving ranges; and, by his own admission, he might not make the list of the three Brits most likely to win a major. His name is Nick Dougherty, he's 25, and he shot a two-under-par 68 on Thursday.
Get to know him while you can, lads, because if past results indicate future performance, he might not be around much longer.
"I'm playing really well at the moment, my golf is in great shape, but this year it has been disappointing in a lot of ways for me," Dougherty said. "I've led, I think, six tournaments of the 14 I've played, at some stage, a few of them very near to the end, and I haven't finished one of them off, which has been extremely disappointing to me."
Starting strong has become a habit for the 6-foot-1, 190-pound Dougherty, who is originally from Liverpool, Beatles country, but now lives in Richmond, Surrey, England. Of those 14 tournaments this season, he's shot opening rounds in the 60s 10 times, a pair of 70s, a 72 and a 75. If you include his score Thursday, his first-round scoring average is a spiffy 68.93.
He tied for second at the New Zealand Open, his third start this season, but easily would have won were it not for a third-round 79. He went 68-81 at the Johnnie Walker and missed the cut, and he admitted that it was impossible to rule out another dire turn of events at Oakmont.
"The course is barbaric," said Dougherty, who has but a single career victory on the Euro tour, the 2005 Caltex Singapore Masters. "I think that's the funny thing about these events. I doesn't matter how you're playing. You're always a little bit worried that if you have an off day you're going to embarrass yourself."
Argentina's Angel Cabrera got to three under for his first five holes but slipped a bit on the back nine and finished with a one-under 69. Jose Maria Olazabal was also under par for much of the day, but he got hung up in the Brillo-strong left rough on 17 and made bogey to finish at even-par 70 with Bubba Watson. Tiger Woods and the defending champion, Geoff Ogilvy, played in the same threesome and were well within striking distance with matching 71s.
Dougherty was "delighted" to get it around in two under, especially given that he hit only eight of 14 fairways and 12 of 18 greens in regulation. He tallied a tidy 27 putts, only 11 of them on the back nine, while shooting a three-under 32; he made birdies on 11, 13 and 17, and no bogeys. He made one birdie on the front, on the par-3 6th hole, and back-to-back bogeys on the tricky par-4 7th and brutal par-3 8th. The David Leadbetter disciple says that while he is still under the tutelage of "Lord Lead," a new secondary coach, Damien Taylor, has helped him turn things around.
"I'm not very good at defending [a lead]," said Dougherty, whose brother is a corporate lawyer in New York. "I'm not good on the back foot. I can't kind of prod it around. It's important for me to go out there and just keep going."
If you believe in omens, Dougherty got here by way of the Walton Heath, England, sectional qualifier, the same one that gave us Michael Campbell, who won the Open at Pinehurst in 2005.
A bon vivant when he turned pro in 2001 who has slowly distanced himself from his party-boy rep, Dougherty played Pinehurst, too. And while he finished well back, tied for 52nd after rounds of 72-74-74-75, he calls it, "the most special week I've had on the golf course."
And now a word about the flute, the one that Dougherty played as a boy. He was so good that he reached Grade Six, whatever that means. It seems his father thought it would be a great idea for Nick to continue to play as an adult, but not just any flute. He had to have the best.
So Dad made a deal. He knew Pete Best, the original drummer for the Beatles, and cashed in on that connection to obtain one of Paul McCartney's first guitars. Then Daddy Dougherty, bless his heart, traded in the instrument for a lovely new flute for his boy. Once a car salesman, always a car salesman.
"I don't know why he did it; it's his own fault," Dougherty said, laughing about the family's most infamous bogey. "Can you imagine me asking for a flute? His general idea was because I was young at the time, he said, 'When you're on tour, it will entertain you, to be able to sit in your room and play the flute.' You can imagine it, can't you? It's a great idea. TGI Friday's is much more fun...
"Yeah, you win some, you lose some, don't you," Dougherty continued. "I'll get him something better. If I win this, I'll buy him something nice, a house or something."