Golf / US Open: Nicklaus back in the old routine: Montgomerie finds his form in the heat of battle as Watson returns to his wonderful ways

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IN THE heat of battle Montgomerie and Patton went their separate ways. Colin Montgomerie led the 94th US Open Championship at Oakmont for a glorious but brief spell during the first round yesterday while Chris Patton was heading for a cool, darkened room and a bottle of smelling salts.

Big Monty, who took on the hue of a red lobster despite the fact that he was wearing a straw hat, got to three under par after 14 holes at which point he was in splendid isolation at the top of the leaderboard. However, he had a double-bogey six at the 15th and finished with a level-par round of 71, two strokes behind, wait for it, Jack Nicklaus, the South African, Ernie Els, the New Zealander Frank Nobilo, Hale Irwin and three behind Tom Watson.

Old Golden Bear has been here before. In 1962 he defeated Arnold Palmer in a play-off at Oakmont and yesterday when he stood on the 18th green it was like going back in time. Nobody birdies the 18th (452 yards, par four). Nicklaus did. Curtis Strange, three under with one to play, got a six there.

Big Jack was 60 feet from the flag and his putt meandered over a green that had the consistency of a curling rink, took a few sharp breaks and dropped into the hole. The 54-year-old Nicklaus looked towards the heavens, closed his eyes and then covered his head in his hands. The man who has won 20 major titles, including the US Open on four occasions and who has been a professional for 33 years, still gets a kick out of making a birdie, however improbable the route.

When Nicklaus won here 32 years ago it was the beginning of the most successful career in the game's history. Yesterday morning his wife Barbara tried to gee him up. In practice here with Palmer, Nicklaus never looked like breaking 80 let alone 70. Enter Barbara. 'She put a spell on me,' Big Jack said. 'She kept telling me I was 22 again. I really didn't think I had the game to score well on this golf course.'

Watson was also pessimistic. Watson, 44, from Kansas City, predicted that 95 per cent of the field would shoot scores more akin to the temperature rather than the par of 71. He was wrong. Watson, who won the US Open at Pebble Beach in 1982, and who was runner- up here to Larry Nelson in 1983 after squandering a three- stroke lead in the final round, went out in 34 and came back in 34. His iron play was reminiscent of the wonderful Watson of the late Seventies and early Eighties. He took the lead on the 17th where he hit his approach shot to three feet from the hole to go to three under.

Nicklaus had the game, the temperament and the experience. He had his old wooden driver and he had his sun visor with the Golden Bear logo.

By comparison to Nicklaus's round, which was almost a model of consistency from tee to green, Big Monty had a more adventurous route. He hit only eight fairways from the tee but his work on the greens was excellent. He had only 28 putts.

It was a noble performance by Montgomerie in the most oppressive conditions. Monty and Patton are probably two of the largest players to swing a club and both have been particularly affected by the extreme heat and humidity. Montgomerie had to consult a doctor before the start of the championship. He had lost too much fluid.

'When you stand over a putt the blood rushes to your head,' Montgomerie said. 'I've got a throbbing headache and my caddie had to go and lie down in the locker-room. My hands have swollen up and it's difficult to concentrate. As the temperature rose to 100 F with humidity in the 90s, rounds were taking in excess of five hours.

Big Monty, third in the US Open at Pebble Beach two years ago, had a birdie at the third, and another at the 560- yard fourth where he was just short of the green in two after hitting driver, driver.

Nick Faldo was two over par following a 73. 'I'm still there,' Faldo said. 'I haven't done too much damage. Apart from the odd bad shot I played quite steadily.'

As for poor old Patton he withdrew after eight holes suffering from heat exhaustion. The former US Amateur champion, who weighs more than 20st, got into the championship only as a last-minute replacement for the injured Vijay Singh. Patton was taken to an emergency medical facility where he was given fluids.

As the authorities declared a heat emergency alert - 12 huge water tanks were placed around the course along with 50,000 drinking cups - Els described the contest as the survival of the fittest.

'Winning a US Open is not about power,' Nicklaus said. 'It's all about playing the game under the most difficult conditions they can give you. It's about patience and course management. I've always felt I could be competitive in the majors although in the last couple of years I've played absolute rubbish.'

(Photograph omitted)