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Woods struggles to 74 in U.S. Open

FARMINGDALE, N.Y. - Tiger Woods figured that the worst part of his first round, when he had to play six-plus holes in the pouring rain, had passed.

FARMINGDALE, N.Y. - Tiger Woods figured that the worst part of his first round, when he had to play six-plus holes in the pouring rain, had passed.

It certainly looked that way yesterday after a birdie on the 14th hole at Bethpage Black got him to even par in the U.S. Open.

But inexplicably, with the sun making a rare appearance yesterday over Long Island, Woods saw his game unravel with a double bogey and two bogeys in his last four holes.

So the game's dominant player, seeking a record-tying fourth Open championship, put himself in a mud-filled hole after the opening 18 holes with a 4-over-par 74, matching his second worst score in the 15 Opens in which he has competed.

At the end of the rain-delayed first round, Woods was tied for 81st place and trailing first-place Mike Weir by 10 strokes, not a good number in an Open. The largest deficit overcome by any U.S. Open champion after 18 holes was 9 shots, by Jack Fleck in the 1955 Open when he defeated Ben Hogan in a playoff.

Woods, the defending champion, entered the 109th Open as the overwhelming favorite but now has to put up a decent second round today - when rain is in the forecast once again - to avoid missing the 36-hole cut for just the second time in an Open.

"I was hitting good shots," Woods said after the round. "It's not like I was hitting it all over the place. I hit a lot of good shots. Unfortunately, I didn't finish off the round the way I needed to."

Woods, who hit 49 of 56 fairways in his Memorial Tournament victory nearly two weeks ago, missed six of 14 fairways yesterday. He hit 10 greens in regulation and took 31 putts.

Woods praised the grounds staff and volunteers at Bethpage State Park who he said "did a hell of a job getting the golf course ready." But he still seemed a little bothered by shots he had to hit with mud caked on his golf ball.

A "mud ball," which Woods said he was faced with four times, affects the flight of the ball and the shape of the shots he wants to hit. The U.S. Golf Association repeatedly has said it will not adopt the lift, clean and place rule.

"If we keep [playing the ball] down, it is what it is," Woods said. "It's potluck. You hit good shots and you go play from there. Everyone has to deal with the same conditions."

Woods' round turned dreadful at the uphill 459-yard par-4 15th, where he plugged his second shot, took a free drop, hit a bad pitch, and 3-putted for double bogey. He bogeyed 16 and 18.

"Well, I wasn't playing poorly," he said. "That's the thing. I was even par with four to go and I was right there where I needed to be, and two bad shots and a mud ball later, here we go and I'm at 4-over par.

Woods ended his round just before 11 a.m. yesterday and is scheduled to go off this morning at 10:06. The afternoon group, which could not start Thursday because of the saturated condition of the course, played its entire first round yesterday and kept going after a break of a little more than an hour. Play was suspended at 8:24 p.m.

"The way I feel right now, no, I don't want to go back out there right now," Woods said at the conclusion of his round. "Probably would be a few clubs light."

Woods is trying to become the fifth player - joining Willie Anderson, Bobby Jones, Ben Hogan and Jack Nicklaus - to win four Opens. He's attempting to become the first to win back-to-back championships since Curtis Strange in 1989.

Being Tiger Woods, he doesn't think the task is impossible. But it is formidable.

"I just need to continue to do what I've been doing and just, hopefully, clean up the round a little bit," he said. "Hopefully, drive the ball in the fairway and get a couple of breaks and not catch them, but we'll see what happens. If it dries out more, it will get worse."