Nick’s new party is at Oakmont

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Associated Press

OAKMONT, Pa. – Nick Dougherty was young, rich and good-looking, and he took every advantage of it.

He golfed a little and partied a lot, blowing hundreds of thousands of dollars in cities across Europe. His night-owl antics were so well known he was dubbed “George,’’ as in George Best, the soccer player whose carousing made him a tabloid staple.

Those days, though, are long gone. Not only has the 25-year-old Englishman cleaned up his act, he’s playing like a phenom again. While the rest of the field staggered through the first round of the U.S. Open on Thursday, Dougherty made it look easy with a 2-under 68.

“I like to think that people who know me as of the last couple of years think of me as one of the most professional players they know. I prepare as well as anyone. I train. I do everything the right way,’’ said Dougherty, whose other nickname is “Little Nick,’’ after mentor Nick Faldo. “I strive for perfection, and back in the day that wasn’t the case.

“But, you know, I was a young man, and young men have fun. I don’t regret it. Because now I know the right way to run my life and how to go about my professional career to get the most out of it, because I know what not to do.’’

While Britain’s Luke Donald and Justin Rose are well known to American golf fans, Dougherty doesn’t have nearly the same name recognition. But he just might be the best of the bunch.

He was only 6 when he won an under-14 tournament. He caught the eye of Faldo after winning three titles on the Faldo Junior Series, created by the six-time major champion to encourage young European golfers. Dougherty teamed with Donald to lead Great Britain and Ireland in a rout of the United States in the 2001 Walker Cup and turned professional shortly after.

He finished 36th on the European tour Order of Merit in 2002 thanks to a pair of top three finishes and was named rookie of the year.

But while Donald, Rose and Paul Casey seemed to make steady progress in their careers, Dougherty was treading water. He dropped to 60th in the Order of Merit the next year, with only one top-10 finish.

Finally, after another average season in 2004, Dougherty realized some changes were in order. He cut back on the partying and began working with Faldo’s old swing coach, David Leadbetter.

In his fourth start in 2005, Dougherty won in Singapore, his first tour victory.

Though he hasn’t won since, he’s shown the form and consistency that made him so promising early on. He’s had five top 10 finishes this year, including a tie for second in New Zealand and a tie for third in Italy.

“I’m playing really well at the moment. My golf is in great shape,’’ he said. “But this year has been disappointing in a lot of ways for me. I’ve led, I think, six tournaments of the 14 I’ve played, a few of them very near to the end, and I haven’t finished one off.

“So I was very much looking forward to playing,’’ he said. “I really wanted to see how I do coming in, playing a major when I’m on my game, which I am at the moment.’’

He needed only 11 putts on the back nine Thursday, an impressive stat on Oakmont’s brutal greens. He made only two bogeys, back to back on the front nine, but most importantly didn’t get flustered by them.

“I didn’t actually play that well tee to green, but I was hitting it in the right places when I missed,’’ he said. “I never really shortsided myself all day, which is great. And my short game is red hot, as it has been recently.’’

Now the trick will be to keep it up. There are three rounds to go, and some impressive names close behind. Jose Maria Olazabal is two strokes back, and Tiger Woods in the pack at 1 over.

“It means a lot to be leading the U.S. Open, but it doesn’t mean I’m going to win the U.S. Open, or `Wow, he’s in front, so he should cling on like Tiger Woods,’’’ Dougherty said. “I can just go about my business as usual, and I’m pleased with the start today.’’

No Brit has won the U.S. Open since Tony Jacklin in 1970. Dougherty’s goal is to be considered one of those with a chance to change that.

“I believe I’m a good enough golfer to contend in majors, whether it’s now or this year or down the line,’’ he said. “I want to be one of those European and British players media look at to fly the flag for us in these tournaments, because we’ve had a drought recently. Hopefully it will be starting from this week.’’

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