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In preparing course for U.S. Open, the debate rolls on: Is it too tough?


WILL THE United States Golf Association get it right for this week's U.S. Open at Pinehurst's No. 2 course?

Johnny Miller concluded NBC's 2003 U.S. Open telecast by saying that Olympia Fields was a bit too tame. He jokingly warned players that the USGA would exact revenge the next year at Shinnecock Hills.

After 36 holes in Southampton, however, 2004 co-leaders Phil Mickelson and Shigeki Maruyama were 6-under par. Seventeen players had finished 36 holes at par or better.

That kind of scoring is probably too low for USGA standards. It did not matter that nine of the leader board's first 20 were ranked in the world's top 20, with six of the world's top 10 players in contention.

"They look up at the scoreboard and they see all those red numbers and they panic," said third-place finisher Jeff Maggert. "They don't want 10-under to win their tournament, and that's just the philosophy that they've had forever."

An absence of rough at Pinehurst might produce lower scoring than the USGA would like. Will that generate measures to toughen the course?

According to several of the golf course superintendents handling tasks such as mowing and green-rolling at Shinnecock Hills, the USGA attempted to ratchet up conditions after Friday's round last year. This included multiple cuttings and rollings of all 18 greens, including Shinnecock's severe par-3 seventh.

As Saturday's third round progressed, afternoon players were having trouble keeping their balls on the seventh green. USGA executive director David Fay joked that the seventh was the "toughest par-4 in America."

Fay said that it had been "brought to our attention" that the seventh green was "by mistake, rolled this morning." As Fay uttered those words Saturday afternoon, NBC cameras showed maintenance crews double-cutting the green at the week's standard one-10th of an inch mowing height.

Former USGA executive director Frank Hannigan likened the USGA's mistaken rolling spin to "saying Sauchiehall Street was inadvertently torn up overnight."

During Saturday's early evening hours when a persistent wind continued to dry out the course, The Golf Channel's Rich Lerner asked USGA rules and competitions director Tom Meeks if the USGA planned to water the course.

Meeks said no. The old Shinnecock irrigation system was later said to be too weak to combat the wind.

Sunday morning, the first group of Kevin Stadler and J.J. Henry posted a pair of triple bogeys at the seventh hole. The next group posted a triple bogey and a double bogey.

NBC's Johnny Miller said that the hole was "unplayable."

The USGA applied a light misting to the seventh green to keep balls from rolling off the surface, quickly proving that the green could have been made playable before the round commenced.

As Sunday's round progressed, hose-wielding crews were called in to douse emerging hot spots throughout the course.

The scoring average on the short par-4 10th finished at 5.03The field averaged 78.72 on a day with only light breezes and 28 scores were posted in the 80s.

Eventual champion Retief Goosen (24 putts) holed out from unthinkable locations to capture his second U.S. Open title, but after the round, players could only talk about how the USGA handled Shinnecock under ideal weather conditions.

"It's our national championship, and they lost control of the golf course," Tiger Woods said. "There's nothing wrong with guys being under par."

Fay recently told the Los Angeles Times that "if Phil [Mickelson] had not double-bogeyed 17 [during Sunday's final round], the story line would have been different. Phil and Goosen solved the riddle. That's a classic U.S. Open type of finish, when a handful of players figure out how to play the course."

After a final-round 84, Tom Kite saw it differently.

"They've lost the war with equipment. The players are bigger, faster, stronger. And so they're hitting the ball so far that length means nothing. You can make a golf course 8,000 yards and water it down to where the ball plugs and somebody will still be able to reach the green and do some nice stuff. I love the U.S. Open. I really do. I think our national championship is the premier event in golf. It's a shame when they push the golf course to the limit as much as they have in this particular case."

Geoff Shackelford has written nine golf books, including the recently released The Future of Golf: How Golf Lost Its Way and How To Get it Back.

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