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Different Tournaments Find a Common Link

With thousands of trees removed, the wind will come into play, giving U.S. Open a British feel.

June 17, 2004|Chris Dufresne | Times Staff Writer

SOUTHAMPTON, N.Y. — There are 164 bunkers at Shinnecock Hills Golf Club and almost as many angles this week as the world's top players batten down hatches for today's opening round of the 104th U.S. Open.

The first thing that strikes you about this Open is that it looks more British than U.S.

Shinnecock has received a severe shave and a haircut since it last played host to the Open in 1995, an event made famous by Corey Pavin's four-wood shot on the finishing hole.

Question: Where did all the wood go?

Thousands of trees have been removed in an effort to allow the wind a better angle to the pins as it whips its way in from the Atlantic Ocean.

A course agronomist said they hacked down so many trees on the course to "let the air through it."

As if this course wasn't tough enough already. In the last two Opens staged here, only one player finished under par -- 1986 winner Raymond Floyd.

The greens have been given a Marine buzz cut and rounded into the shapes of contact lenses, to the degree where you ought to win a prize if you get a tee shot to stick on the par-three seventh green.

The dust is up, the heather is high and the fairways already are turning brown.

In other words, said Sergio Garcia, "it feels like you're back in the British Isles. It's an absolutely links course."

Maybe this will provide enough of a barren backdrop to fool the Europeans into thinking they can take one of these trophies home; no European has won a U.S. Open since Tony Jacklin in 1970.

It's going to happen again some year, Garcia insists, so why not this one?

In fact, Garcia is one of two Europeans who have a decent-to-good chance of winning at Shinnecock -- Ireland's Padraig Harrington is the other.

Garcia has won twice on tour since he finished fourth at the Masters.

Harrington is due for a breakthrough given that he has posted four top-five finishes in major competition and seems to finish second on the regular tour about every third time out.

Other major talking points:

* What will Phil Mickelson do for an encore?

He has been on one long victory lap since his first major victory at the Masters, but now it's back to bunker business. With his victory at Augusta, Mickelson stands as the only player with a chance to win a same-year Grand Slam.

"It's just amazing what's changed in the last two months," Mickelson said. "We go from 'Will he ever win a major?' to 'Is he going to win a Grand Slam?' "

Mickelson's high-ball trajectory would seem to work against him at Shinnecock because of the wind factor, although he finished fourth here in 1995.

* Will Tiger Woods ever win another major?

Obvious answer: yes.

The reality: After winning seven out of 11 majors in one incredible stretch, Woods has gone winless in his last seven. Here, he hopes to feed on some positive vibes. Woods' last major win came two years ago, in the U.S. Open, at Bethpage Black, on Long Island.

"I know that I haven't played up to my absolute peak, but who does week in and week out?" Woods said.

Woods admits it has been a long time between trophy hoists -- although everything in his glorious career is relative.

"It's a long time considering the fact that I was winning there, it seemed like just about every other one," Woods said.

* The seventh hole.

Never have so many golfers been more terrified by a par-three, yet No. 7 at Shinnecock has everyone abuzz.

It measures 189 yards and normally plays into the wind. A bank of trees that once protected the green from the wind has been removed. Players have been reduced to giggles and groans in practice rounds after watching seemingly perfect tee shots disappear off the green.

"It's almost impossible to hit that green," Garcia said.

Vijay Singh said he would be "tickled" with four pars at No. 7 this week.

Mark Michaud, director of championships agronomy for the USGA, takes almost ghoulish pleasure in discussing the mini-monster he helped create.

"There used to be solid wall of trees behind that green," he said. "Now the golfer is hit in the face by the wind. It takes a perfect shot to stay on that green. We'll have a lot of fun watching it this week."

* Jim Furyk and David Duval (Re: What are these guys thinking?).

Furyk, the defending U.S. Open champion, is in the field despite not playing a competitive round in six months. He had surgery in March to repair ligament damage in his left wrist. He may be the first golfer in Open history to be offered at the No. 1 tee box an introduction, a cigarette and a blindfold.

Duval's entry into this field is more of a mystery. The last No. 1 player in the world before Woods decided last Saturday to enter this year's tournament.

His game has gone so far south he should consider designing a course in Antarctica.

Duval has not won on tour in three years, has watched his ranking fall to No. 434, and hasn't played a PGA event since missing the cut at Las Vegas in October.

* Will there be another first-time major winner?

Well, that has been the trend.

Although you have to like the chances of multiple-major winners Ernie Els, Woods and Singh, the last six major titles have gone to first-time winners: Mickelson, Shaun Micheel, Ben Curtis, Furyk, Mike Weir and Rich Beem.

And the player to watch on the major breakthrough front is ... ?

Chad Campbell.

He has come close before, finishing second to Micheel at last year's PGA Championship.

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