SOUTHAMPTON, N.Y. -- "That's the hardest back nine I've ever played," Bill Glasson said yesterday after shooting 32 on the front nine and 38 on the back nine in the second round of the U.S. Open at Shinnecock Hills Golf Club.
Someone relayed Glasson's comment to Phil Mickelson, who, after shooting a 70, grunted an ironic laugh and said, "Hey, the front nine isn't any easier."
Which means . . .
"Yes," said John Daly, who shot 75, "I'd say this has to be the toughest course in the world."
You can't prove it, of course; the argument is subjective, and there are numerous other courses, such as Pebble Beach and Turnberry and Pinehurst No. 2, about which the claim of world's toughest also can be made. Traditional Open venues such as Oakmont, Merion and Baltusrol are hardly benign.
Yet it is clear that the Open has stopped at a special place this year, a place that is distinct, superior and immensely challenging, even among the coterie of top courses around the world.
"This is fabulous, the best Open course I've ever played," said second-round leader Greg Norman, competing in his 14th Open. "Only one hole out there (No. 10) is questionable because you can't see where you're going. But that leaves 17 fantastic, very difficult holes."
You know Shinnecock is special because the course is winning the war -- only six of 156 golfers beat par through the first two
rounds -- yet not a single player has indulged in that staple of tour life, whining about unfair playing conditions.
"You won't hear anything this week," Bob Tway said. "This course is too good."
What is it about this 100-year-old layout, situated on a narrow spit of hilly seaside terrain, that exempts it from criticism and makes it so tough?
The absence of criticism is easily enough understood. Unlike most modern courses, Shinnecock hasn't been "tricked up." Bulldozers haven't been called in to move mountains, dig ponds or alter the original design in any way. The course is almost exactly as it was a century ago. Walking it is like going back in time.
"You couldn't fill a teaspoon with the land that's been artificially moved," Norman said.
In an era of man-made, manicured treachery, Shinnecock is evidence that newer and glitzier doesn't mean better.
What makes it so difficult to play is not as easily discerned. Shinnecock doesn't appear unusually challenging on a warm, blue afternoon such as yesterday. Its strength lies in subtleties.
Take the greens, for instance. They don't have the enormous mounds common to newer courses, so they don't look as tough. Yet many are shaped like a tepee, sloping down in all directions from a crown in the middle. It's devilish topography.
"You're always trying to get a ball to hold on a slope, or stop at the crown on top," Mickelson said. "We don't play greens like them anywhere else. It's almost impossible to get up and down on one side of every green."
As well, this being a Scottish-style seaside course (even though the water is a half-mile away), the sea breeze is always a factor -- and difficult to gauge.
"You're always guessing about the wind," Glasson said, "because it changes as you go up and down the hills. You don't know whether [the wind] is blowing a certain way, or maybe swirling down where you're aiming your shot. You're just never sure. Never."
A mystical wind, crown-shaped greens -- and relentless pressure, too. As banal as it sounds, the course is hard because the course is hard, marked by narrow fairways that require accuracy off the tee, and by oh-so-long approach shots that make it all but impossible to stick a shot close to the pin.
"The Masters is a lot of fun, no rough, lots of chances at birdies, par-5's reachable in two," said Mickelson, who is among those under par after two rounds. "This is work. You have to hit the ball in the fairway or you're in trouble. You can't make a bad shot or you pay. It's very draining to keep your concentration up."
And then, of course, there is the least subtle aspect of Shinnecock's treachery, the infamous hip-high grass -- the fescue -- lying some 20 yards off the fairway. Tiger Woods hit a ball in there yesterday and sprained his wrist trying to hit it out. Most players just take an iron and whack at the ball like a lumberjack wielding an ax, hoping only to move the ball out of there.
Bernhard Langer hit his drive into the stuff on the 11th hole Thursday and started to laugh when he arrived at the scene and saw his impossible lie.
"Nice lie," said a very New York fan standing nearby. Welcome to Shinnecock.
The 36-hole cut mark, announced late yesterday, was 6 over par, the highest Open cut (in relation to par) in eight years. And if you think the first two days were tough, wait until the next two: the weather forecast is calling for a steady breeze, which will dry up the greens soaked by rain earlier in the week, making them even slicker, and make general conditions even less predictable.
"Would you take an even-par total on Sunday and take your chances?" someone asked Glasson.
8, "You bet," he said. "No doubt about it."