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Thomas Bonk / ON GOLF

This is as good as it's going to get for them

June 15, 2007|Thomas Bonk

OAKMONT, PA. — To get to the locker room in the old clubhouse at Oakmont Country Club, you take a quick left turn inside the back door and head up the green carpeted stairs to the second floor, where the atmosphere is strictly turn-back-the-clock.

Whirring white ceiling fans, dark stained benches worn with years of spike marks and row after row of ancient wooden lockers evoke a mood that can soothe even the most jangled nerves.

It's not flashy, but that's precisely the point. This place is comfort food for the senses, the perfect place to get away from all the trauma that's out there on the golf course.

And on opening day of the U.S. Open, there was the usual assortment of misery to sort through.

Rain on Wednesday night had softened up the course, especially the greens, and there wasn't much of a breeze Thursday. This meant that Oakmont wasn't going to bite anybody's head off, at least not early Thursday, and the players who had the morning tee times knew it.

Even Pablo Martin, a 21-year-old from Malaga, Spain, in his first U.S. Open, realized that mean old Oakmont had an off day.

"It wasn't that difficult, I think," Martin said. "But I'm sure it's going to get worse and worse."

Everyone who heard his voice knew what Martin meant, and in the worst way.

If there ever was going to be an occasion when Oakmont would play like a big softy, this was it. The tilted greens are headache inducing, but at least they had a little give in them, so opportunities to take advantage of the place needed to be grabbed right away.

Kick it while it's down, Rory Sabbatini said, because you know it's not going to last.

It didn't even last until the afternoon.

"Any confidence you have on this golf course will quickly evaporate," said Sabbatini, who shot a three-over-par 73. "This course is going to wreak havoc all week."

Even with the softened conditions, only two players finished under par, Nick Dougherty and Angel Cabrera.

Masters champion Zach Johnson shot 76, as did two-time U.S. Open winner Retief Goosen. Former PGA Championship winner Steve Elkington shot an 84. The average score was 75.3.

Narrow fairways, ankle-deep rough, steep bunkers, diabolical greens -- that's what is printed on Oakmont's business cards. This is simply no place for the faint of heart, even if you're just standing around, minding your own business, like the USGA official Geoff Ogilvy nailed on one bounce with an errant shot at the 17th hole.

Ogilvy was a lot more accurate when he said Oakmont definitely showed its mild side.

"It wasn't crazy difficult," he said.

That's the Oakmont everyone recognizes. Tiger Woods said it was a testament to Oakmont's complexity that it was still hard when it was at its easiest.

"It's as soft and receptive as you're possibly going to have and not too many of the guys are taking it to the golf course."

Maybe the best way to prepare for Oakmont's greens is to practice putting on the Pennsylvania Turnpike that cuts through the middle of the course.

Having a huge highway bisect a golf course is a little unusual, but then so is the Church Pews bunker. You land in there and you've got no prayer.

Woods said it's hard to make birdies and easy to make bogeys and double bogeys. In fact, Woods said there are usually places you can bag a cheap birdie once or twice a round at most of the courses where majors are played, including Augusta National.

"There are none here," he said.

So if Oakmont was at its most benevolent and still no one laid a glove on it, what can that mean for the next three rounds?

It's not going to be pretty. The bogeys will be flowing. Carnage all around. Chances are that quiet time in the locker room upstairs is going to be an attractive proposition.

--

thomas.bonk@latimes.com

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