PINEHURST, N.C. -- For as far as the eye could see, a ceiling of Carolina blue sky stretched above. Below, a vibrant green welcome mat went nearly as far.
It was there to greet the US Open back to Pinehurst No. 2, but in yesterday's first round it was used by two golfers to move into a competitive landscape that they have been missing from for far too long.
''Hello, Pinehurst," said Olin Browne, his round of 3-under-par 67 giving him a share of the lead.
''Remember me?" wondered Rocco Mediate, who also authored a 67.
If that were answered in the negative, it would be understandable. After all, it has been three years and 67 tournaments since the most recent of Mediate's five career wins. Browne? The absence is even longer -- nearly six years and 184 tournaments since the second of his two wins. In fact, neither player maintained full-exempt status a year ago, Mediate 178th and Browne 128th on the money list.
Yet there they were on a sun-splashed day, jumping to the top of the leaderboard in arguably the most demanding tournament in the world at one of the sport's most renowned golf courses. How crazy is that?
''I'm surprised," he said. ''I have to remember how to do this."
United States Golf Association officials needn't say the same thing, for if there is one thing they never forget, it is how to take a demanding course and set it up to dish out plenty of punishment and only small portions of pleasure to those who handle the challenge.
''That's the beauty of the [US] Open. That's why I love it," said Mediate. ''It's always been my favorite tournament. Period."
While others may not hold it in such high regard, many echoed Mediate's sentiments, and hardly shocking was the list of names who followed close behind on the leaderboard.
Retief Goosen, for instance. The defending champion obviously didn't hear how tough it was to hit these greens, because he successfully found 16 in regulation in his round of 68 that earned him a share of third with Brandt Jobe and England's Lee Westwood.
A four-way logjam for sixth includes inimitable lefthander Phil Mickelson, who slid home a 15-footer for birdie at the 18th to shoot 69, tied with Luke Donald, Steve Jones, and K.J. Choi.
Hardly shaken by their rounds of even-par 70, Tiger Woods, Vijay Singh, David Toms, and Adam Scott settled into a share of 10th with three others, while Ernie Els, Jim Furyk, and Sergio Garcia were among the 15 players at 71.
In all, the field average of 74.699 on a day that featured perfect scoring conditions only reinforced just how demanding a test has been put in front of players who know very well that this is no birdie-fest.
Mediate, in fact, made just two, but his share of the lead came courtesy of an eagle at the 607-yard 10th, a hole he didn't think he could reach in two. ''I had 260 to the front and hit a nice 3-wood," said Mediate, ''and walked up and [the ball] was right in the middle of the green."
Next thing he knew, the ball was in the bottom of the cup, a 50-footer leaving him with a wide smile, for he had only meant to lag it.
It was a nice sight for a player who hasn't had much to cheer about the past few years. Having ranked no worse than 37th on the money list the previous five seasons, Mediate earned $257,692 and plummeted outside the top 150 in 2004. His back ached, his play suffered, and the call went out to his longtime instructor, Jimmy Ballard. ''The guy is brilliant," said Mediate, who refined his swing to take pressure of his back. Hitting nine fairways, 11 greens, and needing just 27 putts made him feel even better.
That is a state of mind Browne can relate to, because he has ranked outside the top 125 on the money list each of the last two years and there has been but two top-10 finishes since 2003. His elbow ached, so last winter he had surgery and considered packing it in at the age of 45. Months later, in the afterglow of a Pinehurst day that featured a back-side 32, Browne was of a much different mood.
''It was a fun, fun day," he said.
Born in the nation's capital, Browne didn't play golf until he was 19, then he got hooked. A job in the bag room at New Seabury Country Club in Mashpee, Mass., provided an environment that fueled his passion, and an uncle's membership at The Country Club in Brookline, Mass., afforded him a grand place to work on his game. He honed his skills in college, then competed on minitours and the Nationwide Tour, all the while grinding away.
''I'm a lucky person and I'm trying to show some appreciation for that," said Browne.
Browne's round was punctuated by one of four birdies at the brutish 492-yard, par-4 16th. He missed the fairway, but from 222 yards he navigated his way onto the green with a superb 7-wood. From 15 feet, he slid home the putt, and with a par-par finish, he was assured of his first lead after any round in a major.
You can't say that about the marquee names lurking, because there are 10 major winners within four shots.
Woods, as always, drew the brightest spotlight and when he birdied his first hole, the par-5 10th, the crowd roared. But he hit just six fairways and didn't give himself many more scoring chances, his only other birdie coming at the par-4 fourth -- and that was to get back to even par because he had bogeyed Nos. 15 and 16 after errant drives.
''I need to be more in the fairway," said Woods, who was wildest when he tried to drive the 336-yard, par-4 third. Headed toward the state border, his ball hit a tree, bounced back into play, and he was able to make par.
Those are the type of breaks you need. Woods knows that and so does Mickelson, though the lefthander concedes he'll need to do more. He'll need a better chipping effort.
''I am pleased with 1 under," said Mickelson, who birdied two of his first four holes, but bogeyed 15 and 16 before ending things at the 18th with his fourth birdie. ''But the disappointment for me is, I spent a lot of time practicing chipping [at Pinehurst]. I feel I put in the effort to get those up-and-downs and I didn't do it."
Finding flaws with a 69? That's the competitive landscape that Mickelson is accustomed to.
And that Mediate and Browne were welcomed back into.