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Tuesday, May 5, 2009

USGA Softens Bethpage for US Open

This year's U.S. Open at Bethpage Black may be played on a kinder, gentler course, according to comments I heard during yesterday's presentation by Mike Davis, USGA Senior Director of Rules and Competitions. Players and casual fans should love the result but I'm not so sure it's going to uphold the U.S. Open tradition of being the toughest tournament of the year.

Numerous changes in the set up for the Black Course will be made for this year's event, with most of them making it easier than it played in 2002 when Tiger Woods won his second Open trophy. The course has been lengthened by 212 yards through the addition of several new tees, but Davis said it wasn't likely it will play the full 7,426 yards at any time since the USGA plans to move the tee markers from day to day--in some cases by as much as 100 yards--to encourage more "risk and reward" scenarios.

Another major change will be the use of graduated rough, which was introduced to the U.S. Open at Winged Foot in 2006. An intermediate swath of short rough--well under two inches--will line each fairway. The first cut, which will generally be around 2 and 1/2 inches deep, will extend some 20 feet on either side of that, with the more punitive 4- to 6-inch shag coming further out. The purpose is to give the players at least a shot at the green if they miss the fairway. During the press conference, Tiger Woods remarked
"In 2002, if you hit the ball in the rough, majority of the time, you could not get to the green. You had to lay up and try and make par with the wedge game. The graduated rough, I'm sure you could get some balls to the green...."
On top of the shorter rough, the fairways themselves are going to be wider than 2002, averaging 29 yards.

The lengthening of several holes is intended to bring more of Tillinghast's bunkers into play, but that remains to be seen. Even from the new tee on the ninth hole, it's only 285 to carry the bunkers at the dog leg. That may be a mighty blow for Rocco Mediate, but I suspect you'll see plenty of three woods off the tee there to keep from blowing through the fairway.

The seventh hole has a new tee, too, making it the longest par four in U.S. Open history at 525 yards (it typically plays as a par 5). The cross bunker should still be easily carried off the tee, however, and the USGA, in keeping with its apparent newly-found love for birdies, is widening the fairway on the hole substantially to encourage players to fade one around the dogleg so they can short-iron their approach into the green.

A subtle but significant change in the way the course plays from day to day throughout the tournament will also make it easier, at least in my opinion. In past years, the USGA toughened the course as the week progressed, letting the rough grow, the greens harden, and often raising the speed of the greens on Saturday and Sunday. This year, the goal is to keep conditions the same throughout the week, grooming the rough daily depending on the weather and maintaining a speedy 14 on the Stimpmeter for the duration. That means the players will have to make fewer adjustments from day to day in their putting stroke and, given the relatively non-severe contours of most of the Black course's greens, they should be sinking more putts on Sunday since they'll have had three days of consistent practice.

There are a few changes that should make a difference, notably on two of the par threes. The green on the eighth hole has been brought down to the pond, making for some interesting pin placements. The hole itself will play anywhere from 135 to 230 yards, depending on the tee location, which will be adjusted to encourage players to take the risk. The fourteenth green has also been enlarged (although not expressly for the tournament). Davis said,
"we have got three great hole locations that we never had in 2002, two in the back tier, and in the front there's a front left lobe that is really dynamic that will be probably a pitching wedge, but a tough one, at that."
The USGA's goal with all these changes, at least according to the official line, is to give the players a fair test of golf, rewarding good shots and punishing bad ones. It appears to me that the real goal this year is to give the fans a scoring spectacular. Not a birdie fest necessarily, but a tournament with plenty of fireworks to give the always-vocal NY fans something to scream about.

Dave Donelson, author of Heart of Diamonds a about in the

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