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Open Debate

It wouldn't be a U.S. Open unless golfers griped about course setup

June 08, 2003|Doug Ferguson | Associated Press

OLYMPIA FIELDS, Ill. — John Daly swatted a moving ball with his putter at Pinehurst No. 2 to protest tough conditions at the U.S. Open.

Tom Lehman was belligerent about the hole location on the 18th at Olympic Club. Nick Price was so angry about the 10th hole at Bethpage Black that he gave the USGA an F for course setup. "A pitiful effort," he said.

Olin Browne was ticking off his list of favorite golf courses: Riviera, Colonial, Quail Hollow, Harbour Town, Westchester "and whatever course they play the U.S. Open on before the USGA gets ahold of it."

Not a year goes by that someone doesn't complain about something at the U.S. Open, the self-described "toughest test in golf."

The man responsible for preparing the course is Tom Meeks, who makes few apologies.

"In a perfect world, I wish they would give me a hug and a kiss and said I did a good job. But that's not going to happen," said Meeks, the USGA's senior director of rules and competition who has been setting up U.S. Open courses since 1996.

"It can't happen when we do what we do -- try to determine the best player in the world," Meeks said. "We've got to make it hard. And when we make it hard, it challenges them. If we don't make it hard, why have a U.S. Open? We might as well run another PGA Tour event."

The PGA Tour likes to say "these guys are good." Out of 20 tour events this year, only at Riviera did the winner fail to reach double digits under par.

The U.S. Open requires these guys to be even better.

"You have to accept that you're not going to make birdies at a U.S. Open," Jeff Maggert said. "You come out here every week, play good, and you expect to make four, five or six birdies a round. You go there ... you can play perfect and not make one."

Meeks took over the job of setting up U.S. Open courses in 1996 at Oakland Hills, where the rough was so deep there was a local rule for members in the two months leading up to the tournament.

Anyone who lost a ball in the rough could drop in the vicinity without penalty.

Every year, at least one par 5 gets turned into a long par 4. In 1997, it was No. 6 at Congressional, measuring 475 yards with a pond guarding the front of the green.

Larry Rinker was playing the course Friday before the U.S. Open and complained to Meeks that he had to hit driver, 3-wood just to reach the green.

"I told him, 'Isn't that great? You play all year on the PGA Tour and never get that chance,' " Meeks said.

The most valid complaint was in 1998, when Meeks set a back hole location on No. 18 at Olympic Club that was nearly unplayable because of the firm green.

Lehman watched a solid round turn into a 75. Payne Stewart had an 8-foot birdie putt that grazed the lip, then rolled some 25 feet down the hill. Kirk Triplett was so frustrated he stuck his putter in the ground to stop the rolling.

Meeks concedes it was his biggest mistake.

"If you have any doubts on a hole location, don't use it," Meeks said. "I went against my better judgment."

Meeks took almost as many hits for last year's setup at Bethpage, where the 10th hole required a 260-yard carry to reach the fairway. Several players hit their best drive and still wound up in thick grass short of the fairway.

"If we had a mulligan, we would have brought the fairway in another 15 yards," Meeks said. "We had a wind on Friday that we very seldom get. I wouldn't call that a whiff, but it was an eye-opener."

Not many players in this U.S. Open have ever seen Olympia Fields. Almost all of them know what to expect, because Meeks has a blueprint for setting up the course.

"U.S. Open courses are good," David Toms said. "They'd be unbelievable if they didn't try to abuse you."

Meeks wants it firm and fast -- on the fairways so that any drive off line will roll into the rough, and on the greens to make it imperative to land on the proper side of the hole.

He wants the rough to be deep and difficult.

Hole locations will be among the toughest that players see, even in a year in which the PGA Tour routinely sets them three and four paces from the edge.

The result will be a winning score not far from par.

Tiger Woods is the only player to finish a U.S. Open at double digits under par. He was 12 under at Pebble Beach, although no one else was better than 3 over par.

The U.S. Open demands supreme accuracy off the tee, skillful irons, a great short game, pressure putting -- and that's only half of the equation. The key is for players to keep their wits over 72 holes.

"It's driving the ball in the fairway, it's putting and chipping and not going crazy," Charles Howell III said. "It's as simple as that. If you can play a whole U.S. Open and not beat your head in the wall once, you've probably done all right."

That wasn't the case for Jose Maria Olazabal at Pinehurst in 1999. He was so frustrated after his first-round 75 that he punched his hotel wall, broke his hand and withdrew.

No matter how Olympia Fields looks or plays, there figures to be complaints from some corner. After all, it's the U.S. Open.

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