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Public Enemy

No one is sure what to expect from Bethpage Black, a difficult course made tougher this week

June 13, 2002|CHRIS DUFRESNE | TIMES STAFF WRITER

FARMINGDALE, N.Y. — Warning: This is an extremely difficult story that we recommend only for highly skilled readers.

Bethpage Black might be the only golf course in America that comes with its own warning label, so maybe it should follow that everything associated with this week's 102nd U.S. Open Championship come with caveats.

The U.S. Open, by edict, is supposed to be the supreme test for golfers, yet, at 7,214 yards, Bethpage could be remembered as the long walk spoiled.

A disclaimer: This Open is the first to be played on a fully public course, yet don't think for a minute this equates to a romp at your local muni. No one here is playing in tennis shoes or hitting off mats.

The idea in coming to Bethpage was sort of a big-picture, feel-good endeavor to celebrate golf's roots and placate the plebes, take the sport back to the people who play golf without caddies or swing doctors.

This year's Open, which begins today, can be viewed as an ode to inclusion and multi-ethnicity and in particular to Tiger Woods, a kid who grew up playing par-three courses in Long Beach.

"I wasn't able to play country clubs," Woods said this week. "We didn't have the money."

Yet, Woods and the other 155 entrants this week want to make clear that Bethpage isn't your average pitch-and-putt. In other words, kids, do not try this at home.

"I don't really know if the golfing public who plays here every day would want to have it set up like this every day for them," Woods said.

Bethpage was already an extremely difficult course before designer Rees Jones took over and squeezed the birdies out of it with an overhaul some have compared to an artistic restoration.

The fun part of this week is the perception that people in the gallery, the local New Yawkers, can somehow feel the golfers' pain--Yo, Tiger, don't sweat it, I double-bogeyed No. 14 too!

More than 30,000 hackers trample each year on Bethpage Black, for as little as $31 on weekdays, with many of the course's devotees camping out overnight for a tee time.

During a practice round this week, one fan hollered at Phil Mickelson, "Hey, I'd like to see you play after spending the night in your car!"

This backdrop provides for a unique intimacy and mystery. There is no precedent at Bethpage, no magical shots from yesteryear to frame the event the way Watson's chip shot on 17 in 1982 has always framed the U.S. Open at Pebble Beach.

But make no mistake: This week will not be a public picnic.

It is the deepest ongoing desire of the U.S. Golf Assn. to make the Open, if not a dance with the devil, at least a boogie with bogey, an event in which embarrassment is par for the course.

"The only way to keep us from shooting under par is to make it ridiculously hard," Davis Love III said.

In the same way steroids have altered the integrity of baseball, technology advances in golf have threatened the majors. Augusta National has struggled mightily to keep up with the titanic and titanium tee shots.

All hope seemed lost when Woods pistol-whipped the field and the course at venerable Pebble Beach when he won the 2000 U.S. Open there by 15 shots.

The USGA would do almost anything to avoid that kind of undressing again.

It's doubtful anyone would welcome a revisit of 1974, when Hale Irwin won at seven over par in what became known as "Massacre at Winged Foot," yet the choice of Bethpage and its subsequent rigging has all but assured Sunday's winner won't be under par by double digits.

"I think this is the most nerve-racking tournament in the world," Sergio Garcia said. "I think it's the toughest, probably the toughest tournament in the world, playing without wind. If the wind blows at the British Open, it gets really tough. But playing without wind anywhere in the world, I think this is the toughest tournament."

Not that there's anything wrong with that.

It is by design and with forethought that an impostor does not take home this trophy.

Sunday ought to produce a champion with a name everyone can pronounce, even if that name is as tongue-tying as Jose Maria Olazabal.

It would be a bulletin if some Paul Lawrie type sneaked in to steal this major.

This is an Open where you round up the usual suspects: Tiger Woods, Ernie Els, Phil Mickelson, Vijay Singh, David Duval, David Toms, Sergio Garcia and defending champion Retief Goosen.

Even though some, including NBC commentator Johnny Miller, think the U.S. Open is the most difficult of the four majors for Woods to win, you have to start any prognostication with Tiger based on the fact he has won six of the last 10 majors and is far and away the world's best player.

Woods is trying to become only the fifth player to win the Masters and U.S. Open in the same year, joining Craig Wood (1941), Ben Hogan ('51, '53), Arnold Palmer (1960) and Jack Nicklaus (1972).

Els is a two-time champion, but his sweet swing has required help lately from coach David Leadbetter.

Maybe it's not a good sign that Els was last heard describing Bethpage as a "torture chamber."

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