CHASKA, Minn. -- The second coming of Hazeltine National Golf Club has some people checking their calendars. Tom Watson swears the barren, expansive farmland free of civilization reminds him of a British Open layout. Other golfers have marveled at massive practice-round galleries in the 40,000-range they say are typical only at The Masters.
But make no mistake. This is definitely the U.S. Open that teed off today.
The Stimpmeter is registering green speeds of 12, which is off the U.S. Golf Association Richter scale. The fairways have been cut tight, and if the wind blows at all, some have predicted a repeat of over-par rounds Hazeltine spawned the first time it hosted an Open back in 1970.
So much for the early line, that Hazeltine's extensive facelift would produce more contenders since none of the usual suspects had ever played this Open course. Reviews from the practice rounds say it best: This is still the U.S. Open. In fact, some predictions say this could one of the toughest Opens in recent memory. And some of these memories are long.
"If nothing changes, there could be some rounds in the 90s," said Jack Nicklaus, who had his highest U.S. Open score (81) here during the windy first round in 1970. "It's fairly set up, it's just difficult. There are no birdie holes."
Hale Irwin, who became a three-time Open champion last June at Medinah, said a blustery day could make scores "so high it will be comical" because of the firmness of the greens and the thickness of the rough, which is back to five inches after a move to four last year. Irwin, who is playing in his 22nd Open, predicted rounds lasting up to six hours as the field hacks out of the rough and three-putts on the speedway greens.
"It's an unrelenting sort of golf course," Irwin said. "Just when you think you come to a birdie hole and think you can play aggressively, you see the pin placement and how
hard the green is and you say, 'How am I going to get it close?' We will spend a lot of time putting from 25 feet."
At least if disaster does strike, Hazeltine members won't be hiding in the clubhouse. Unlike 1970, when Dave Hill gave the course a black eye by calling it a cow pasture, Hazeltine is no longer undefined and immature. Fifteen holes were redone in some way, and several doglegs and blind shots were removed.
Listen to the reviews. Nick Faldo called it a "straightforward, honest test of golf." Watson said it might be the "best Open course I have ever played" and said the openings to the greens made by architect Rees Jones are a lesson all modern course designers should copy.
The course is so tough, Irwin even told Nicklaus yesterday a thundershower might not be bad to soften it up. Nicklaus told Irwin to bite his tongue, since a day of rain would dull the advantage the true Open players -- those who are straight and patient. Irwin agreed, but wouldn't go as far as Watson, who was actually hoping for 20-mph winds.
"I don't think you need any wind," Irwin said. "That will just drive the wedge down deeper between those who can win and those who can't."
The greens might do that anyway. The problem is not only the speed, but the many contours and levels; these babies are fast and hilly. Amazingly, the course took 11 inches of rain two weeks ago, but the past 10 dry days and some creative work with helicopters and push-mowers have worked wonders.
"These greens are much faster than Augusta," said Rocco Mediate. "They're a 12 [on the Stimpmeter]. They'll be at least 15 tomorrow."
What mayhem the greens don't provide, the par-four 16th hole will take care of. This is the new Hazeltine's signature hole, representing the unforeseen challenges on the course.
Originally tagged the "dogleg par-3" by Hill because of a huge tree to the right of the fairway in front of a peninsula green, the
hole was made a par-4 when the 17th had to be converted to a par-3. Players will have to carry their tee shots -- from driver to 2-iron, depending on the wind -- over the water to a tight landing area with a creek to the left and Lake Hazeltine on the right. Then there is that tree to negotiate for the second shot.
"It will be the largest factor in the tournament," Nicklaus said.
But Irwin warned: "Why is everybody picking on the 16th? There are a lot of holes before that that will be critical."
Yet, the last three seem to be on everybody's mind, including the 182-yard, par-3 17th and the 452-yard, par-4 18th, with bunkers surrounding the landing areas and greens. Faldo said, "I don't know of any tougher finishing holes, except the last three at Muirfield in Scotland."
Finally, Hazeltine is ready to keep that kind of company.