Colin Montgomerie carded a one-under 69 to be the only man under par after a brutal first day at Winged Foot.
US OPEN LEADERBOARD
US unless stated
-1 Colin Montgomerie (Sco)
Even Jim Furyk, Phil Mickelson, Steve Stricker, Miguel Angel Jimenez (Spa), David Howell (Eng)
+1 Kenneth Ferrie (Eng), Graeme McDowell (NIre), Vijay Singh (Fij), Mike Weir (Can), John Cook, Fred Funk, Kevin Stadler, Geoff Ogilvy (Aus)
+3 Padraig Harrington (Ire), Darren Clarke (NIre)
+4 Ernie Els (SA)
+5 Michael Campbell (NZ)
+6 Tiger Woods
+7 Retief Goosen (SA)
+8 Luke Donald (Eng)
England's David Howell looked set to steal the Scot's thunder but four dropped shots in the last four holes dragged him back to level par.
A double-bogey on 18 saw Howell join American trio Jim Furyk, Phil Mickelson and Steve Stricker, and Spain's Miguel Angel Jimenez on level par.
British stars Kenneth Ferrie and Graeme McDowell are a shot further back.
Having reached four under with four to play - nobody else got lower than two under - Howell is bound to be disappointed with his finish.
The in-form 30-year-old opened with two bogeys in his first four holes before a run of six birdies over the next 10 took him three clear of Montgomerie's target.
Then the tough Winged Foot set-up hit back hard. Howell got out of position with his drive at 15 and bogeyed before seeing a horrible bounce at 16 lead to another dropped shot.
But worse was to follow at 18, where a poor drive and three putts saw him card a six.
This left Montgomerie out in front on his own, and it could have been even better for the 42-year-old as he missed a short birdie putt at the last after another great approach.
That was a minor disappointment, however, and it was a superb effort from the Ryder Cup hero, particularly as he was two over after three holes.
I'm looking forward to the challenge - the US Open is my style of golf
Montgomerie, still without a major title, finished third at the 1992 US Open, lost a play-off in 1994 and was second again in 1997, but has failed to make an impact in this championship since.
The key to his excellent round was his accuracy from tee to green. He hit nine of 14 fairways and 11 of 18 greens, a considerable feat on a typically challenging USGA lay-out.
A relaxed Montgomerie, who claimed another second-place in a major at the Open last year, said afterwards: "I'm looking forward to the challenge this week as the US Open is my style of golf."
The eight-time European number one is coming off two good weeks in Europe but had voiced concerns in the build-up that his putting was not good enough to win here.
But despite that tentative effort at the last, Montgomerie's putter was only required 28 times.
It's a tough golf course but I thought this was as fair a US Open test as I've seen
Mickelson, who turns 36 on Friday, is chasing his third straight victory in a major after winning the 2005 USPGA and Masters earlier this year.
The American, always popular with the New York galleries, needed to be at his imaginative best on Thursday.
"It's a tough golf course but I thought this was as fair a US Open test as I've seen," said Mickelson.
"I didn't hit many greens but I was able to put myself in spots where I was able to get up and down."
The 36-year-old Furyk was another to recover well after a poor start. The 2003 US Open champion bogeyed the long 3rd and 4th holes, and was back at level par after birdies at five and six.
Two more birdies and a bogey got him under par, and in the lead on his own with a hole to play, but a poor approach to the 18th saw him three-putt for a bogey finish.
"It definitely played difficult but no hole out there was unfair," Furyk said. "It was just tough to get the ball on the fairway."
Howell was three shots clear only to falter down the stretch
Furyk and Mickelson were later joined on even par by compatriot Steve Stricker. The 39-year-old carded three birdies on the back nine to come home in 32, a great effort after a start that saw him four over after just three holes.
And when Jimenez reached that mark too there were five Europeans in the top 14.
One further back on one over with Ferrie and McDowell are six players including world number three Vijay Singh, who won at nearby Westchester last week, and 2003 Masters champion Mike Weir.
Defending champion Michael Campbell, however, could manage only a five-over 75, one behind South Africa's Ernie Els, who holed his approach to the last for an eagle-two.
But the Kiwi is still one shot better off than world number one Tiger Woods, who visited all parts of the course on his way to a 76 that could have been much worse.
Among the other big names, Sergio Garcia and Luke Donald will be very disappointed with their eight-over 78s, while Retief Goosen is only one better after a 77.
The first-round scoring average of 75.984 was the highest first-round average at the US Open since the 77.8 at Shinnecock Hills in 1986.
And Montgomerie's single sub-par round was the least for a first round since 1986, when none of the 156 players broke par.