- The Washington Times - Tuesday, June 12, 2001

TULSA, Okla. Welcome to Southern Hell, where sweltering heat, a diabolical layout and a history of mayhem are guaranteed to make this week's 101st U.S. Open the ultimate exercise in attrition.
"I just lost a couple of pounds on the practice tee, and it can get a lot worse," said Hal Sutton yesterday, seemingly enjoying the 92-degree heat at Southern Hills. "We've been spoiled with pretty moderate conditions for the last few years, but this is more like typical Open weather. This one's going to be a scorcher."
Last year at Pebble Beach, Tiger Woods carried out a scorcher of his own, torching the field by 15 shots to begin his incomparable streak of four straight victories in golf's majors. But Woods' drive for five comes on a course considerably more challenging than the layouts that resulted in that riveting run.
"Southern Hills was always too hard for me," Jack Nicklaus told reporters two weeks ago at his Memorial Tournament. "I'm sure Tiger can handle it, but it is likely to be a different kind of major test for him."
Perhaps what Nicklaus means is that Woods has yet to grind out a major victory on a track as relentless as Southern Hills. The last two majors played on courses which mock par like Southern Hills both took place in 1999, when Payne Stewart took the U.S. Open at Pinehurst at level par and Paul Lawrie emerged from Carnoustie's demented setup with the highest winning score at the British Open (6-over 290) in more than 50 years.
Woods, of course, has won five of the six majors since, shredding a series of more birdie-friendly layouts. But Southern Hills returns us to the summer of '99 and perhaps at least the potential for a momentary glimmer of parity.
"It's a beast," said Tom Lehman yesterday after a practice round on the 6,973-yard, par-70 course. "It's long and the greens are hard and fast. It's very difficult, just like the USGA wants it. If we get more heat, some wind and no rain, it could be a brutal week for scoring."
That's exactly what happened in 1958, when Southern Hills hosted its first Open. The combination of searing heat and high winds prompted players to dub the event "the blast furnace Open." And only eventual champion Tommy Bolt, who won at 3-over 283 managed to make it through the week without posting at least one round of 75 or higher. Incredibly, only six sub-par rounds were recorded all week, and the 36-hole cut was a ludicrously high 14 over. Providing the perfect conclusion to the event, a hailstorm descended on the property just five minutes after the final group holed out and destroyed the layout's greens.
The Open returned to Southern Hills in 1977, and once again the tournament was defined by extreme circumstances. When eventual champion Hubert Green walked off the 14th green on Sunday, he was approached by USGA officials Harry Easterly and Sandy Tatum and advised that a death threat had been made against him. An anonymous woman had phoned the FBI offices in nearby Oklahoma City and excitedly explained that three armed gunmen told her they intended to assassinate Green on the 15th teebox. Green, leading by one over Lou Graham and suddenly escorted by more than 30 policemen, was given the option of withdrawing, asking for a suspension of play or continuing.
Green, an epic oddball, apparently made a flippant reference about an ex-girlfriend and headed directly to the 15th tee. With his police escort in tow and a handful of ABC's cameras commandeered to scan the gallery for potential assailants, Green calmly played 15, 16 and 17 in par-birdie-par and took a two-stroke lead to the 18th hole. He hit a poor approach to the final green, but never blinked over the four-foot bogey putt that secured a one-shot victory at 2-under 278 over Graham.
A somewhat surprised gallery and TV audience then watched as Green was quickly whisked from the green to the scorer's tent beneath a human shield of officers. He never returned for the trophy presentation.
"Win the Open in Tulsa and get thrown in jail," Green quipped to reporters after the incident.
Two years later, a businessman from the Northeast actually was gunned down in the club's parking lot after a round, causing rampant speculation about a Mafia hit.
Finally, less than two years ago, the course was vandalized when somebody sprayed eight greens with battery acid. The perpetrator was never caught, but the combination of obscenities, swastikas and references to other employees led the club to suspect a disgruntled maintenance worker who disappeared immediately after the incident.
"Some strange things have gone on around here," chuckled Rocco Mediate yesterday. "Kind of makes you understand why Barry Switzer liked to pack heat in this state."
Still, the vandalism turned out to be just the impetus the club needed to overhaul the layout originally created by architect Perry Maxwell at the behest of oil baron Waite Phillips in 1936.
All 18 greens on the course were fumigated, restored to the size that had dwindled over years of mowing and planted with a more heat tolerant strain of bentgrass. The bunkers on the course were deepened. Several new tees were added, and eight holes were lengthened. Southern Hills now features the longest par-4 in Open history (the 491-yard, 16th) and the longest par-5 in major championship history (the 642-yard, 5th).
The new greens are the slickest the Tour will have seen since the Masters, a fact which conspires with Southern Hills' length and its parade of severe dog-leg par-4s to give the plan its character.
"It's extremely difficult, because the fairways all seem to dogleg about 275 yards from the tee, meaning longer players won't be able to hit many drivers," said world No. 2 Phil Mickelson three weeks ago at the Kemper Open. "Every course favors longer hitters to some degree, but Southern Hills far less so than an Augusta National or a St. Andrew's."
Between that relatively egalitarian taste and the site's penchant for producing the bizarre, perhaps somebody other than Tiger will finally emerge victorious from this week's major bash.
"I wouldn't count on it," Green told the Tulsa World last month. "If Tiger is on his game, the other guys better just pack up and go on home… . I don't think it matters where you play the tournament. I think Tiger could win on the moon, or Mars or Jupiter."

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