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USGA betting that its reputation and the greens hold at Pinehurst


PINEHURST, N.C. - Trying to re-create perfection is usually difficult, whether it's a college football team going after an unbeaten season or a concert pianist going for another mesmerizing performance.

The United States Golf Association can attest to that. After hosting what many thought was the perfect U.S. Open a decade ago at Shinnecock Hills Golf Club, the USGA was widely criticized after the final round last year.

Going into the 105th U.S. Open, which begins today at the Pinehurst Resort and Country Club, the USGA is hoping that the same kind of praise that was heaped on the renowned No. 2 course in 1999 will be there again.

Or will it become Shinnecock revisited?

The biggest issue is the condition of the greens, particularly the crowns in front of them that are the signature of legendary Scottish designer Donald Ross.

They have become crusty, as have some of the other areas on and around the greens.

"Right now they are very firm and fast just like they were on Thursday and Friday at Shinnecock," Phil Mickelson said Tuesday. "But as soon as they dried out overnight [at Shinnecock], they became what we saw over the weekend. I feel as though without rain ... we have the potential for 18 holes that could be like No. 7."

That was the par-3 that turned into the biggest controversy last year. After the first three players tripled-bogeyed the hole, each with putts that ran off the green, the hoses were turned on and the players were ticked off.

It didn't help that the rest of the course was nearly as nasty as No. 7, producing one of the highest single-round scoring averages (78.77) in U.S. Open history and, for the first time since 1963, not a single round under par.

"There is a chance that there's going to be a few greens this week that we're going to have a problem on if they're not careful with their pin placements," said South African Retief Goosen, whose precision around the greens in the final round last year led to a two-stroke victory over Mickelson and a second Open title in four years. "I won't say I'm looking forward to that ... but it makes the better players just rise to the top a little bit more often than if it's easy."

Goosen is again being mentioned among the favorites this week, along with a short list of obvious contenders: two-time Open champion Tiger Woods, who finished tied for third here in 1999 and is coming off his victory in this year's Masters; Mickelson, who finished second to the late Payne Stewart here in 1999; two-time Open champion Ernie Els of South Africa; as well as Vijay Singh, the world's No. 1 player.

While the premium at any U.S. Open is on accuracy off the tee, creativity around the greens also will be a priority. Players have been seen here this week trying everything to get a feel for chipping in the spotty areas around the greens.

One player, Jonathan Lomas of England, was spotted using his driver to putt from off the green on the par-3 15th hole. The problem around many greens is that the grass has yet to come in, and with high temperatures expected through tomorrow and no rain, it's unlikely to grow in by Sunday.

"It might hit soft in a sandy spot, another time it might get up on the green and go over," Woods said. "Unfortunately it's going to require a bit of luck this week and see what kind of bounces you get. You have to hit the ball well, put the ball on the green and have it stay on the green. I think the guy who hits the most greens [in regulation] either will be the winner or be right there with a chance on the back nine."

Walter Driver, who as the chairman of the championship committee is in charge of setting up the course, was asked yesterday if he was embarrassed by what transpired last year on Long Island.

"We learned last year; we learn every year from the U.S. Open," Driver said. "We're very attuned to weather conditions ... and if we need to put water on the greens, we will. We learned from Shinnecock that we will watch the golf course closely."

Said USGA executive director David Fay: "I've had a lot of embarrassing moments in my life, so maybe my threshold for embarrassment is higher than others. It's not what we wanted to see occur. I'm disappointed in a sense that Retief's remarkable performance was overshadowed, and also Phil's for 16 holes."

Aside from the 203-yard 15th, the hole that could produce the biggest headaches is the 472-yard, par-4 fifth. The most difficult hole on the course during the 1999 Open, No. 5 still has some sandy landing areas from tee to green, and holding shots either on the front right or back left of the green will be impossible.

Singh has a friendly warning for the USGA if the condition of the course deteriorates as it did last year.

"I told Tom Meeks [the USGA's director of rules and competition]: 'If you lose the golf course, you'd better hide, but there's not going to be any place to hide because we're going to find you,'" Singh said. "None of those guys are going to break 100 if they try, if they set it up like they did last year."

Said Driver: "We think this is going to be a very successful U.S. Open. It has all the makings of it. We don't intend to set ourselves up for criticism. What we intend to do is have as good a U.S. Open as we can, and we think we have all the seeds in place."

But will they be the seeds of discontent?

At a glance

What: U.S. Open

Site: Pinehurst (N.C.) Resort and Country Club, No. 2 Course, 7,214 yards, par 70

When: Today-Sunday

TV: Chs. 11, 4 (today-tomorrow, 3-5 p.m.; Saturday-Sunday, 12:30-7 p.m.) and ESPN (today-tomorrow, 10 a.m.-3 p.m.; 5-7 p.m.)

2004 winner: Retief Goosen

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