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FOCUS ON GOLF / U.S. OPEN | BILL PLASCHKE

Short on Yardage, Long on Drama

June 12, 1997|BILL PLASCHKE

BETHESDA, Md. — It will finish as most of us started.

Before we learned to hit a wood. Before we could afford to play anywhere but the pitch-and-putt. Somewhere between Goofy Golf and the country club.

To 71 holes of high drama, the U.S. Open golf championship will add a distinctly American ending Sunday, and it should be a humdinger.

It's the 18th hole.

It features a slope-filled green surrounded on three sides by water, and one side by sand.

Only 190 yards from the tee box.

A par three.

After carefully hiking over the longest course in Open history, golfers will close with a screaming bungee jump.

Four hours of navigating thick rough and deep sand, followed by five minutes of poking a ball under a toy windmill.

Imagine the possibilities.

A guy wins the thing with a hole in one.

A guy loses the thing with a shot that is drowned by a snake.

"It could be 'Wow, what a finish,' " said Buzz Taylor, U.S. Golf Assn. vice president.

It's already that.

This is the first finishing par three at a U.S. Open in 88 years, the first at any of the four major tournaments in 57 years.

Not to mention, golf blasphemy.

Traditionalists feel that great tournaments should end on holes that normally require the use of each of the three types of clubs--a wood, an iron and a putter.

"This hole takes the driver out of your hand," complained Tom Lehman, last year's leading money winner.

Traditionalists want to end this Open on Congressional Country Club's 17th, where tournaments usually end here, where Ken Venturi made his weary walk at the close of his 1964 Open victory.

"I'm disappointed that we can't end on the hole that Venturi ended on," Davis Love III said. "I'm disappointed we can't take the same walk."

Even members of Congressional were disappointed, furnishing the USGA as many as 1,000 letters of complaint.

To which I say, don't get your knickers in a twist.

It is this blind adherence to tradition and golf's attention only to the needs of its own that kept many fans away until the emergence of Tiger Woods.

Now that the ratings are bulging and the house is full, what better way to celebrate than the kind of hole everyone understands.

Watching par fours and par fives on television, it is difficult to tell the good shots from the bad.

There is nothing more boring than watching a ball soar through the air from a nondescript patch of fairway . . . and land in the middle of another nondescript patch of fairway.

On the 18th hole here, there will be no such ambiguity.

From tee to pin, thousands of fans on surrounding hillsides will be able to tell exactly what is happening. They will know the exact moment the winner has won, and the loser has lost, and exactly how.

No scorecard necessary. No aerial views required.

The green is huge, 6,400 square feet. But when the hole is at the front, as it should be most of the weekend, only the most timid will use all that green.

The courageous will glare at the water, shrug at the sand, go for the hole, bet thousands that their shot will not slip down the close-cropped grass along the front slope and back into the water.

It will be a championship potentially decided with an iron, a putter and heart.

It will be great theater.

And doesn't the USGA know it.

The organization gave several reasons for the using the hole, including the theory that a U.S. Open should be played on an exact course used by everyday golfers.

But mostly, it was because they saw the adjoining 17th hole, and the amphitheater created by the hills, and the potential for the game's most exciting finish ever.

Even if some pros aren't sure exactly how exciting.

"If you have a lead . . . it's not that hard to put an iron on the green," Tiger Woods said. "You can play a safety shot to the right if you want, and you have a big green to hit to."

Jack Nicklaus acted as though the opportunity is one he wishes he had at his other 40 U.S. Opens.

"If you have a shot to the green on the last hole, wouldn't you rather it be from a tee than from the fairway?" he asked. "That's what we're talking about here."

But they both acknowledged a problem with those theories. "It has to do with that H 2 O thing," Woods said.

"If there wasn't water, we wouldn't even be discussing this," Nicklaus said.

Summed Ian Woosnam: "Everybody who says it's easy, well, when they are standing there in front of the water and have to put it on the green . . . that's a different story."

So the leader's grand Sunday afternoon fairway march toward the clubhouse will be a short trek across a rickety bridge. So the champion may get a little mud on his slacks. So somebody will finish the best tournament of his life with a lost ball.

It's nothing we won't understand.

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