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Inside the ropes

The short 14th hole is long on drama

June 16, 2008|Mike James | Times Staff Writer

LA JOLLA -- Immediately following a steeplechase of a par five that should have been measured in furlongs was a pint-sized par four so short you could barely measure it at all.

Except that it played a role in the minds of players and on the scorecards of the field, including those who will be playing in today's 18-hole playoff for the U.S. Open championship at Torrey Pines.

As USGA officials said they might, they moved the tee on Torrey Pines' 14th hole up from 435 yards to a tantalizing 267 yards for Sunday's final round.

The green seemed almost close enough to reach out and touch from the forward tee box, and most players took out a fairway wood to try to drive the green. There was deep trouble over the green, long rough and a tough bunker shot to the right, but the allure of hitting a par four off the tee was too much to resist.

"It's a salty little shot," Phil Mickelson said. "You've got to be careful because if you miss it right . . . it's tough to get it close.

"So really the play is to hit it in that left front bunker, because it's such an easy shot right up the hill . . . if you're not going to hit the green. And you have to be careful if you fly it on the green, it could very well go over."

Mickelson did just as he planned, hit into the left bunker, blasted out to a few feet and made birdie on the way to a 68, his best round of the tournament.

Tiger Woods was fully aware of the trouble behind the green, a severe, shaved slope that falls away into the ravine that runs through the course. For him, a five-wood into the wind wouldn't get there, and a three-wood was too much club.

"I'm caught right in between clubs," he said. "I couldn't have had a worse situation numbers-wise."

So he laid up with an iron, hit a wedge to the green and two-putted for par. On a day when the hole played as the 17th easiest on the course, that was like making bogey.

Both Lee Westwood and Rocco Mediate, locked in a three-way battle with Woods, went for it. Mediate hit into the left bunker, blasted to four feet and made birdie.

Westwood plunked his ball on the front fringe and also birdied from there.

That hole followed the 614-yard par-five 13th, where Westwood and Woods bogeyed after pulling their second shots into the deep grass.

Of 80 players in the field, an estimated 50 to 60 went for the green on No. 14.

"I'm all for a little bit of excitement on the golf course," said Padraig Harrington.

Added Stewart Cink, who shot a 67 to finish tied for 14th at five over: "Why not? I like it. We see 480-yard par fours and high rough in the Open. It's great to see a different setup." Cink hit a three-wood to 15 feet and two-putted for birdie.

Heath Slocum, who shot a six-under 65, low round of the tournament, to finish tied for ninth at four over, also took the left bunker-blast-short-birdie-putt route. "I love it," he said. "There's a lot of drama for the fans and players. You can make a three or a six. It just makes for compelling golf."

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Phil's week

Mickelson's closing 68 marked the first time in his 18 U.S. Opens that he has broken 70 in the final round.

And had he made birdie on the 13th hole Saturday instead of the quadruple-bogey nine -- on a hole that played as a moderately short par five -- he would have finished at one over par. That's a total that at one point late Sunday looked as if it could be in contention.

As Mickelson spoke with reporters at the conclusion of his round, Woods walked directly behind him on the way to the first tee. Asked whether he would watch the rest of the tournament, Mickelson said, "I'll probably watch some of it, yeah. It's kind of my punishment."

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The week that was

Jim Vernon, president of the USGA, said Torrey Pines held up well as an Open course.

"It's been a great week," he said, though he stopped short of indicating that it could be a future Open site. "It proved a great stage for the best players. It exceeded our expectations, and we have some pretty good expectations."

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Chip shots

Woods averaged 320.9 yards a drive during the tournament; Mediate averaged 283.4. . . . There are no single-day tickets available for today's playoff. Spectators with weekly passes will be admitted. . . . ESPN will begin televising the playoff at 9 a.m. NBC will assume coverage at 11 a.m.

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mike.james@latimes.com

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