Monday, June 9, 2008

The 19th Hole: The Stage is Clear

The US Open begins on Thursday at Torrey Pines and there is no shortage of storylines leading into the championship. The most obvious is the return of Tiger Woods from knee surgery after a failed bid at a fifth Masters title. Admittedly, he may not be at 100% after rehabilitation, but he has said that may very well not matter. Given his record at Torrey Pines and that he is going for his fifth consecutive win at that facility, he may very well be right. A win would put him within another Tiger Slam of tying Jack Nicklaus’ impossible mark of 18 professional majors.

Lest we forget, though, it is important to mention of the other player of significance in the field – world #2 Phil Mickelson. Mickelson is a San Diego native and claims to have played Torrey Pines over 1000 times in his life. Needless to say, he will be the hometown hero in addition to being the usual rooting interest of the crowd. The People’s Champion has had several close calls in the US Open before and it may be time to make his first run at the national championship since his idiotic moment at Winged Foot two years ago.

Up until Thursday, the third best player in golf right now will be a part of the story of who is not in the field. Kenny Perry, a winner of the Memorial and near winner in Atlanta, chose to avoid US Open qualifying and stay home this weekend. Claiming that he never liked Torrey Pines, he took his long ball and straight driving and hot hand back to Kentucky. He will appear again next at the Travelers Championship.

His story will fade into the background, though, by Thursday. The course will become the story very quickly. It is the longest course in US Open history by almost 400 yards and plays to a length of 7643. Playing to a par of 71, USGA Senior Director of Rules and Competition Mike Davis has said that he expects a winning score under par.

Fit into those 18 holes are two par 4s over 500 yards, a driveable par 4, and a closing par 5 that is set up for pure drama. The whole course features narrow fairways with a continuation of the tiered rough approach. The length ranges from 1.75 inches to 3.5 inches. That is low by USGA standards, but will feature Kikuyu in the rough blend and could lead to some very inconsistent lies. It fits the championship standard of the rough creating some degree of uncertainty as to the next option, but will also allow for recovery shots from the rough.

The entire course will be extremely firm, probably helping the course to play a few hundred yards shorter than 7643. The greens will be no exception, playing in the 13 range on the Stimpmeter. Basically, the setup matches the usual US Open mantra – long, tight, and firm.

The most curious aspect of the setup is that it is relatively fair and tame by comparison to setups that players have seen on the PGA Tour in each of the last two weeks. Two weeks ago, Muirfield Village was setup more like Winged Foot than Torrey Pines will be. The greens were running faster, and rough was almost three inches deeper than the initial cut will be at Torrey Pines. TPC Southwind was equally brutal in terms of scoring conditions. The pin placements throughout the week were nasty. The score to get into the playoff was four under par. That very well could be the winning score this week at the Open.

The point is that the players on the PGA Tour are not unfamiliar with setups that push the course beyond its value for the sake of their egos. Still, it prepares players very well for the litany of problems that the Open presents for players – small fairways, massive length, lightning fast greens, and unreachable pin placements.

The combination of players and course are really what makes the US Open such a compelling week. It is understood as and intended to be the ultimate test in the mental aspects of golf. After nearly three years of wondering just how this thing will turn out, Torrey Pines looks to be Mike Davis’ masterpiece. And, because of the USGA’s pandering, they have also introduced one last storyline to the championship.

Will anyone shoot a round worse than Tony Romo?

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