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FOCUS ON GOLF / U.S. OPEN

A Track Fit for a Distance Champion

Congressional: At 7,213 yards, par-70 layout favors long hitters like Woods, Love and Lehman.

June 12, 1997|THOMAS BONK | TIMES STAFF WRITER

BETHESDA, Md. — The U.S. Open begins today at Congressional Country Club, which means there is a very long way to go . . . and not just because it's only the first round.

The only thing longer than Congressional is the taxicab line at Washington National Airport. If Congressional were any longer, it would never recess.

When 151 pros and five amateurs tee off today, they will be trying to stare down the longest course in the 97-year history of the U.S. Open.

From the tips, Congressional measures 7,213 yards. That's longer than Bellerive Country Club in St. Louis, which played to 7,191 yards for the 1965 Open.

To complicate matters, par at Congressional is 70, and that can only mean one thing: Winning this U.S. Open is probably going to be a distance thing.

"You couldn't draw any better course for a long hitter," Davis Love III said.

And the longest hitter out here? It's Tiger Woods, of course, who hits the ball so far with his three-wood and two-iron that he doesn't even plan to pull his driver out of his bag except on three holes.

"Some of these guys are exceptionally long," Ian Woosnam said. "Tiger will be hitting his three-wood past my driver."

Woods may be hitting past a lot of players in his bid to win the second major of the year and add it to his Masters triumph.

Apart from Woods, Love, Nick Faldo, Phil Mickelson, Colin Montgomerie, Ernie Els, Steve Elkington, Tom Lehman and Greg Norman are the names most often mentioned.

Love and Lehman, who tied for second at last year's Open at Oakland Hills, belong in the select group of challengers who are judged to hit it long enough and straight enough to make a difference here.

Lehman enters his ninth Open on a slide instead of a roll. Since he finished tied for sixth at the Players Championship in March, Lehman has had only one top-10 finish. He tied for 33rd last week at the Kemper.

"I've been very erratic," Lehman said. "I'm not exactly sure why. I just can't seem to quite get everything put together for four straight days, but I'm getting closer."

Like everyone else, he's going to have to find it in the narrow fairways while avoiding the thick rough on a very long Congressional.

"It's a man-size golf course, definitely," Lehman said.

"No matter where you're playing, if you can hit it straight--and I don't care who you are--if you can put it in the fairway on this golf course, you can score," he said.

But they're going to have to work at it. According to Buzz Taylor, a U.S. Golf Assn. vice president, Congressional may set a standard for degree of difficulty.

"I really don't know how it can get any tougher than this one is going to be," Taylor said. "I don't see how you can get a more demanding golf course than this one."

It can be sort of intimidating. You've got a course that's so long, players don't need caddies, they need travel agents. And it obviously has an appetite for devouring golf balls.

If the players capable of hitting the ball a long way are semi-worried, or at least concerned, you can be sure that the shorter hitters are just as anxious.

"Every year, we come into the U.S. Open saying, 'This is the deepest rough, this is the hardest course, this is the toughest one'--and this one may be," Brad Faxon said.

"I haven't seen a number of holes in a row that are this tough. You don't get any breathers. You don't get a chance if you make an errant shot.

"You are going to have a lot of shots that you hit pretty good that are going to end up bad."

Faldo isn't one to hit that many bad shots, although he missed the cut at the Masters and disappeared in the Woods onslaught.

After playing three practice rounds at Congressional, Faldo said he thought the fairways were drying out slightly, which helps the roll on drives. But he is very aware that the trip from tee to green takes a lot of steps.

"I mean it's long," he said.

How long? There's no short answer this week.

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