Byline: KEVIN MODESTI
It rustled the tall grass. It curved the fountains' spray in the middle of the greens-side ponds, splashing unsuspecting mallards. It stiffened flags, bowed flagsticks and swayed eucalyptus trees. It painted scenes you'll rarely see on a Southern California golf course, like a marshall with a wool scarf wrapped under his chin and over his ears, a fan stuffing his hands in the pockets of a long leather coat, and John Daly teeing off in what looked like a hunting vest.
The gusting wind at Valencia Country Club made Thursday a miserable day to play golf - and a perfectly delightful day to watch it.
Come to a PGA Tour event and you want to see two things, tricky conditions and golfers overcoming them. On both counts, it would be hard to improve on round one of the Nissan Open.
As Ernie Banks, who was among the spectators, might have said: ``Let's play 36!''
This is not the weather the golfers expect as their wet western swing concludes. Rain, yes. Gale, no.
All week, newspaper guys wrote about Duffy Waldorf, the Santa Clarita resident, and the edge he'd have playing on his home course. Then, Waldorf showed up at Wednesday afternoon's pro-am to find branches blowing off the fairway trees he knew so well.
He ran into his friend Rick Smith, the Valencia head pro. ``Some local knowledge!'' Waldorf exclaimed. ``I've never played this course when it's that windy.''
The wind wasn't as strong the next day. Yet Waldorf played the course like a member's guest, shooting 40 on the back nine Thursday before recovering to finish with a 1-over-par 72. That made him one of the lucky ones, because once you blew up to 5-over as he did, the unpredictable air currents made it hard to take aim at birdies.
Somebody spotted Corey Pavin's family huddled behind a tree. Seeking shelter. Or Corey's ball. He shot 75.
``It would change intensity and it was really blustery,'' Tiger Woods said. ``You'd throw grass. It (the wind) would be behind you one minute and in your face the next.''
Inconsistency. The players hate that. The wind made shots two clubs longer or shorter. The challenge was knowing which.
Players also hate to be fooled - as when they'd stand on the first tee, shielded from the northeast wind by the clubhouse, only to watch their drives drift into the rough on the right.
Yet for every Gabriel Hjerstedt (81), Bobby Gage (80) and Robin Freeman (79), there was someone who played as if it was dead calm. How, for instance, do you explain Billy Mayfair (65)?
The peculiar thing about the Valencia course Thursday was the combination of conditions that made it beatable.
Although the ankle-deep water from Monday's 4-1/2 inches of rain was gone, winter rules were in force, allowing players to lift and clean. That helped. Plus the greens were still soft. Plus the pin placements were easy, common practice at an unfamiliar PGA Tour stop like Valencia, which is hosting the Nissan while Riviera prepares for the U.S. Senior Open in July.
So the PGA got what it likes - birdies.
``It's a very difficult day, though the scores don't reflect it,'' said Scott Hoch, who is 4-under. ``I think anytime you have the caliber of players we have, and anytime you get the ball in your hand and can hit it to soft greens, you're going to have low scores, even with wind the way it was.''
Kite-flying weather, it was. And Tom flew to 3-under.
``Wind like this,'' said Woods (3-under), ``separates the guys who are playing well and the guys who are playing badly.''
And the thinking guys from the rest. Sometimes, Woods said, the wind might be so strong that you'd even have to factor it into your putting.
It's going to be that kind of tournament. If you're playing, bring your plaid sweater, your logoed jacket and your sponsor's cap - and your windsock.
PHOTO (Color) Fred Couples watches as his caddy drops some blades of grass to determine how the erratic wind is blowing at Valencia CC.
Tina Gerson/Daily News