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Hitting Unfairways

The U.S. Open is supposed to be a difficult test, but sometimes the USGA goes too far

June 12, 2003|Geoff Shackelford | Special to The Times

The U.S. Golf Assn. believes that a winning score somewhere around par reflects a sound U.S. Open course setup.

Despite equipment advances and improved course conditioning, the USGA insists on salvaging old man par's dignity with narrower fairways, tucked hole locations and faster greens. But at several recent U.S. Opens, the effort to defend par in the face of progress has produced several embarrassing moments.

The string of forgettable events started in 1998 when the Olympic Club's slender 18th green featured a second-round rear hole location cut into a steep slope. Because the green had few hole location alternatives, the USGA went with the back hole placement despite pre-tournament evaluations that deemed the area too severe.

"I had a feeling it might not work," Tom Meeks, who as the USGA's senior director of rules and competitions sets hole locations for the Open, later told Golf Digest. "But I thought we've got to give it a chance. Once one group played it, I knew it wasn't going to work."

When tournament leader and eventual runner-up Payne Stewart came to the 18th, his eight-foot birdie putt lipped out. Stewart, who had won the Open in 1991 and would win it again in 1999, folded his arms in disgust while watching his ball roll away. He faced a 20-footer for par.

At Pinehurst in 1999, the USGA refused to surround architect Donald Ross' crowned greens with rough. Players complimented the new-look setup until they saw tournament hole locations perched precariously close to the putting surface edges. Only the weekend's un-June-like morning drizzle prevented a repeat of the previous year's antics.

"They expanded the greens and ended up putting half the pins on the roll-offs," Jack Nicklaus wrote in his book, "Nicklaus by Design."

"That was never part of Donald Ross' vision -- the USGA was just trying to find more ways to counter the ball."

The 2001 Open at Southern Hills produced another embarrassment: two greens too fast for play. Practice rounds revealed that the newly resurfaced ninth and 18th greens held well-struck approach shots. However, after briefly coming to rest, even balls finishing in the middle of the putting surfaces would roll backward. Most trickled back to the fairway, as far as 40 yards below the elevated greens.

For tournament play, the USGA significantly raised mowing heights on the ninth and 18th greens, leaving the bent grass lumpy and leafier than the other 16 surfaces. On Sunday afternoon, 72nd-hole putting fiascos by leaders Mark Brooks, Stewart Cink and Retief Goosen sent the championship into an 18-hole playoff, won by Goosen.

Then there was Bethpage Black in 2002. A topic that still had players fuming in February.

"On the 10th hole at Bethpage, guys couldn't reach the fairway and Tom Meeks thought it was justified," Fred Funk said at this year's Nissan Open. "Here is a guy with his head up his butt, I think."

Bethpage's 490-yard par-four 10th had a 250-yard forced carry over high rough to reach the fairway. During a second-round downpour, 15 consecutive players were unable to reach the short grass. Meeks acknowledged he was aware that the forecast storm would make the carry nearly impossible for most, yet he refused to move tees up before the round.

"I had to keep reminding myself, 'I am a golfer,' " Nick Faldo said. "This is not fighting in the jungle. If we had a 15th club, it would have been a machete or a grenade launcher."

For Saturday's third round, the USGA moved the tee markers on No. 10 up five yards.

Noticing the less-than-generous concession, golfer Paul Stankowski reached down and picked up an NBC microphone next to the tee. "Thanks for the extra yard," he said, hoping Meeks was listening.

Just as controversial was the fairway contour setup for Bethpage's 499-yard par-four 12th. The USGA provided a tiny 12-yard-wide landing area for those driving 260 to 270 yards. If a player carried a left-side bunker and another patch of dense rough with a 285-yard tee shot, the fairway expanded to a still-meager 26 paces.

"What were they thinking?" Nick Price said of the 12th hole setup. "It defies logic."

At Olympia Fields, site of this year's Open, architect Mark Mungeum oversaw the rebuilding of the North Course's ninth and 12th greens because both would have been too severe at U.S. Open speeds. Still, the Massachusetts-based architect is concerned about play on the 440-yard par-four fifth.

"The green slopes severely to the front left," Mungeum said. "A ball rolling off the green to the front will trickle down the fairway before stopping 20 feet below the green. I foresee balls being putted off the green and wedge shots rolling back to the same position from which they were played."

Meeks is unapologetic.

"We did do a good job," he said recently of Bethpage. "It was right in line with the philosophy of a U.S. Open."

Meeks describes the Bethpage setup as "not quite an A-plus."

Three-time U.S. Open champion Hale Irwin, who played in his 33rd Open at Bethpage, was asked how the setup compared to past championships.

"If this is a snapshot of what the future of golf is, and the future of the U.S. Open, I really don't like the look."

*

Geoff Shackelford is the author of "Grounds for Golf: The History and Fundamentals of Golf Course Design" (Thomas Dunne Books/St. Martins Press).

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