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Players might do a slow burn at Oakmont

Rounds at the U.S. Open figure to be marathon affairs on a course with difficult greens and drivable par fours

June 11, 2007|Geoff Shackelford | Special to The Times

Monday finish.

The dreaded day-after conclusion to the U.S. Open looms as long as the United States Golf Assn. settles ties with an 18-hole playoff.

However, with this week's 107th U.S. Open at western Pennsylvania's Oakmont Country Club, a Monday U.S. Open finish could occur for another reason: absurdly slow play.

After a 2007 Masters in which weekday threesomes took the limited field nearly 5 1/2 hours while weekend twosomes played only an hour faster, the strange brew of Oakmont's Augusta-on-steroids putting surfaces and several backup-inducing drivable par fours could conspire with the slightest weather delay to expose golf's least-talked-about problem.

"Oakmont just breeds slow play," says Champions Tour player David Eger, who was the USGA's championship senior director of rules and competitions when the storied club played host to the 1994 U.S. Open.

Defending champion Geoff Ogilvy played Oakmont last Monday and came away enamored of the character-rich 1904 H.C. Fownes design, but horrified by the extreme setup and its possible effect on pace of play.

"I thought that Oakmont was harder Monday than Winged Foot was last year the Monday before the Open," Ogilvy said, referring to the course in Mamaroneck, N.Y. "Many, many over par will win. The rough is very healthy. There is potential for a few lost balls in the rough, especially around the bunkers. It is horrific."

And pace of play?

"It is always slow for us, especially when a course gets hard, and Oakmont is as hard as I have ever seen."

In his second year overseeing course setup and other tournament operations, the USGA's Mike Davis is well aware of the potential for trouble.

"You have both par fives that are reachable and three short par fours that, depending on the day, are all drivable," he said. "That in and of itself is reason for alarm. Then you have crossing the [Pennsylvania] Turnpike, which is around three minutes in each direction. Plus the course is just so hard and there are so many chances where you can have a three-footer that misses and turns into a 15-footer."

If play bogs down beginning Thursday, Davis will encourage the rules officials accompanying each group to suggest that players waive up the group behind them on short par-fours, just as they did in an unprecedented move last year at Winged Foot's sixth hole.

But with wildly severe greens, a 156-player field and the tedious pre-shot antics of the modern player, such precautions may not matter.

"I'm afraid short of penalizing everyone who exceeds a specific time," Eger says, "there will always be a problem with slow play."

Besides lulling spectators to sleep, languid rounds are beginning to affect the lives of touring professionals. The PGA Tour is considering reducing the number of players who make the cut, which wouldn't help pace of play in the first two rounds but might help on the weekend.

Meanwhile Tiger Woods, who has grown increasingly acerbic in post-round comments about slow play, has insisted on a smaller field for his new AT&T National tournament in July.

"I always liked reduced fields, because obviously play moves along a lot faster," Woods said. "You get around in a much more rhythmical pace. I think that's important."

Although the USGA is occasionally criticized for a reticent approach to certain issues in the game, the governing body of North American golf is taking an unusually proactive stance on slow play.

Rounds last year at Winged Foot played about 25 minutes faster because of a new policy that allowed walking rules officials to warn the group's caddies if their players were about go "on the clock" to determine if the group was behind schedule. Also, newly instituted drop circles near immovable obstructions like grandstands and scoreboards reduced the number of time-consuming and sometimes controversial rulings.

At the USGA's 12 other national championships, a new get-tough slow-play guideline has been instituted with hopes of someday introducing it at the U.S. Open.

"But not until we get some support from the PGA Tour," says one USGA insider, speaking on the condition of anonymity.

Under the USGA's "Pace of Play" policy, a reasonable time to finish each hole is determined for the host course, with the committee subsequently designating the fourth, ninth, 13th and 18th hole as "stations" where each group must have the flagstick in the hole by a prescribed time.

A group's first missed time results in a warning, the second results in a one-shot penalty for each golfer. The third missed time means a two-shot penalty and the fourth time, possible disqualification.

"It's not a policy that doesn't have its faults -- it does," Davis says. "But if you want something that forces players to play faster, this works. We reduced pace of play on average at the U.S. Amateur and U.S. Mid-Amateur by 50 and 45 minutes. It puts the onus on the players starting from the first teeing ground."

Three-time major winner Nick Price advocates anything that picks up the pace.

"The only time any guy is going to pay attention is when you penalize him for slow play because it's such a disease, and there is no way on this earth that three professional golfers should take more than 4:15, 4:20, to play 18 holes of golf," he said.

Except this week at Oakmont.

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Geoff Shackelford can be reached at www.geoffshackelford.com.

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U.S. OPEN AT OAKMONT COUNTRY CLUB

Oakmont, Pa. (7,355 yards, Par 70)

* TV coverage: Thursday, 7 a.m.-noon, ESPN; noon-2 p.m., Channel 4; 2 p.m.-4 p.m., ESPN. Friday, 7 a.m.-noon, ESPN; noon-2 p.m., Channel 4; 2 p.m.-4 p.m., ESPN. Saturday, 10 a.m.-4 p.m., Channel 4. Sunday, 10 a.m.-4 p.m., Channel 4.

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