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U.S. OPEN AT SHINNECOCK HILLS

Defense Might Be Weak

Furyk wasn't expected to play after wrist surgery in March, but he couldn't pass up opportunity.

June 16, 2004|Chris Dufresne | Times Staff Writer

SOUTHAMPTON, N.Y. — The man who arrived at last year's U.S. Open as one of those guys in the running for "best player never to win a major" checked in at Shinnecock Hills this week as "best player trying to avoid a major setback."

You could add to the list:

* Best player taking the biggest career risk.

* Best player with a bag of ice on his wrist.

* Best player most likely to withdraw after hacking an iron out of the hay.

Jim Furyk, winner of the 103rd U.S. Open, was not supposed to be entered in the 104th.

He even had a note from his surgeon.

After a breakthrough 2003 season capped by his three-shot U.S. Open victory over Stephen Leaney at Olympia Fields, Furyk's career quickly turned uphill into a head wind.

He lasted two events into this year's PGA Tour calendar when the left wrist that hampered him for months bothered him to the point of shutting down all engines.

The operation performed March 22 to repair cartilage was supposed to sideline Furyk for at least three months.

The simple math -- April, May, June -- pretty much ended any idea of Furyk's being able to defend his U.S. Open title, beginning Thursday.

Yet, Furyk is here, bags in tow, doctors on call and aspirin at the ready.

"I'm throwing myself into the fire this week, coming to the U.S. Open and not playing for as long as I have and playing a difficult golf course set up this tough," Furyk said Tuesday. "It's going to be a tough week, I'm going to have to grind it out."

Some may question why Furyk is doing this.

He hasn't played a round of competitive golf since missing the cut in January at the Sony Open.

No doubt, a part of Furyk being here can be attributed to miracles of modern medicine.

Furyk's wrist has responded much faster than he expected, he said, so much so he couldn't fathom the thought of not taking his first U.S. Open victory lap.

"I was told in order to hurt myself or re-injure my wrist I'd have to do something violent," Furyk said. "That might be taking a lash out of the heather with a hard seven-iron, which I would like to think I'm a little smarter than that."

Part of Furyk being here also has to do with his honorable desire of wanting to defend his title -- as longshot as those hopes might be.

"There is a little warm feeling about it," Furyk said. "And, you know, that's again, one of the reasons I wanted to be at this event.

"I'm not one that's always sat around to smell the flowers too long anyway. And I push myself pretty hard. And I realize that there's a tough task in front of me.

"After this week all that nostalgia will be over with and everyone will forget and then it will just be about me getting my game back in shape."

In pure golf terms, Furyk could not have picked a worse place to plot a return, if you believe reports Shinnecock Hills is playing more like Shinnecock Hell.

Many of the world's best golfers are already conceding par for the course.

Shinnecock Hills has a British Open feel -- it's wide open, barren and wind blown.

Making a comeback here is akin to a mountain man choosing K2 for his comeback climb.

Furyk's fear is hitting a wayward shot wide into the tall grass and wondering if, physically, he will be able to chop it out.

Furyk has not played a full round in quite some time.

He has been working his way back slowly with leisurely nine-hole outings followed by plenty of rest.

The wrist has held up fine, so far, but he'll be pushed to the brink here over four days -- assuming he makes it to the weekend

"If I felt that I couldn't play out of the rough, then obviously I wouldn't be here, because it wouldn't be worth it," Furyk said.

There is no telling how long, or short, Furyk's Long Island stay will be.

He could pull out Thursday after staring down at a wicked lie in the weeds.

He might wake up Friday with a wrist too sore to support a cup of coffee.

Last year, Furyk's goal was to win the U.S. Open.

This year, his goal is simply to finish it.

Lowered expectations?

"I'm not sure," he said. "I don't know. Right now I want to just go out there and compete, do the best that I can and play well....

"I probably expect more out of myself than anybody else, but I also know that I have to be realistic."

*

OPEN FACTS, FIGURES

When: Thursday-Sunday.

Where: Shinnecock Hills Golf Club (6,996 yards, par 70), Southampton, N.Y.

Purse: $6.25 million. Winner's share: $1,125,000.

Television: ESPN (Thursday-Friday, 7 a.m.-noon, 2-4 p.m.) and Channel 4 (Thursday-Friday, noon-2 p.m.; Saturday- Sunday, 9:30 a.m.-4 p.m.).

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