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Can Watney harness his talent?

SAN FRANCISCO -- Nick Watney has extraordinary natural abilities. His long, languid swing is the mark of a gifted athlete. Consistently, the 31-year-old Fresno native produces some of the most beautiful, arching iron shots in the game. Yet for all the acclaim as a world-class talent, he doesn't always get the most out of his game.

In 2012, he has made 12 of 14 cuts but has only an eighth- and a ninth-place finish to show for it. His final-round stroke average of 73.09 ranks 167th on the PGA Tour.

On Thursday, he got almost as much out of Olympic as anyone. He had a first-round 1-under-par 69 that included a double-eagle on the par-5 17th hole, which ranked as the easiest hole on the course, yielding 45 birdies, four eagles and Watney's albatross, a 5-iron from 190 yards that found the bottom of the cup.

Watney was one of only six players to break par in a first round that wielded a 74.91 stroke average on the par-70 course.

"I got off to not the best of starts, but I was playing well," Watney said. "I gave a few shots away with the putter and 16's, a par 6 almost. So I was 3-over, without doing too much bad stuff.

"But obviously the shot on 17 was something I'll always remember, and I'm pleased with the round."

This is Watney's fifth U.S. Open. His best finish in the championship was a tie for 60th in 2008 at Torrey Pines. He also has three missed cuts.

His best major finishes were seventh-place finishes at the '07 Masters and British Open.

Last year, the former Fresno State star had a breakout season with two wins against top fields at Doral and the AT&T National. But this year, he has struggled to get into the winner's circle.

"I haven't played nearly as well as I would like, and I've learned a lot of patience so far," Watney said. "So I feel like my game is really headed in a good direction -- obviously this week and the British Open in a couple weeks, a lot of big events left, so I'm looking forward to the rest of the year."

On Thursday, Watney started on the 9th hole, which gave him a chance to build some momentum before heading to the more difficult front-nine stretch of holes 1 through 6, where he'll start his second round Friday. In his first round, he went through those holes in even par.

"It's just a brutal stretch," Watney said. "Trying to get the ball in play as much as possible, and pars are really good. So that will probably be the same regardless of when I play them."

In February, Watney beat Tiger Woods 1-up in the second round of the Accenture Match Play. It wasn't Woods at his putting best, but it was still a big psychological hurdle for Watney to beat the 14-time major winner in a head-to-head battle. That experience could come in handy if the two are paired at some point over the weekend.

Watney knows he has the game to beat anybody in the world, but this week more than most, it's the golf course that he has to conquer.

"It's the U.S. Open, so under par is really good, and I'm pleased with the round. But at the same time, I've got to play, get up early and play 1 through 6 tomorrow," he said. "So I can't get too high on it."

Farrell Evans covers golf for ESPN and can be contacted at evans.espn@gmail.com.