- The Washington Times - Friday, June 17, 2005

PINEHURST, N.C. — Yawn.

Nobody can turn a major into an 12-hour exercise in monotony like the USGA.

The 105th U.S. Open groaned to a start yesterday at Pinehurst No. 2, yielding little drama, few heroics, no meaningful separation and a pair of unheralded first-round leaders in District native Olin Browne and tour rank-and-filer Rocco Mediate.

“I think they’ve got the course exactly where they want it out there,” said Mediate, who joined Browne in opening with a 67 on the brutal 7,214-yard, par-70 layout. “You have to scrap to earn pars and do something pretty special to make birdies.”

Mediate authored one of the few special moments of the day at the par-5 10th, basically building his entire sub-par salvo out of an eagle from 15 feet on the 607-yard hole.

“I’m trying to lag and make a four, and it went right in the center,” said Mediate.

That’s the mentality the USGA forces on the world’s best players at its annual testament to attrition — lag putts from 15 feet. The U.S. Open always requires defensive, grinding play — call it combat golf. And in Pinehurst No. 2, where the game’s nastiest set of turtle-backed greens reject all but the most precise of approaches, the USGA might have found its ultimate venue.

Pinehurst might be the most penal layout on the planet. How tough is it to hold the greens? Imagine trying to get a golf ball to stop on the top of a Volkswagen Beetle.

“There are no almosts out there,” said two-time U.S. Open champion Ernie Els (71), one of 31 players bunched within four shots of the lead. “Anything less than a great shot isn’t staying on the green.”

And that’s in spite of the fact the USGA watered and syringed the putting surfaces throughout the day to keep the greens semi-receptive. Barring rain, Pinehurst can’t play much easier than it did yesterday. And still the course yielded just nine sub-par scores and produced an average opening-round score among the 156-man field of 74.7. That’s nearly two strokes higher than the average first-round score from the 1999 Open (72.86), when 23 players bested par at Pinehurst.

“It played right on the edge today,” said world No. 4 Phil Mickelson (69), the runner-up at the 1999 Open. “If it gets any harder, which I’m sure it will, and any tougher as the week wears on, it’s going to be almost impossible to shoot a round under par.”

Mickelson was one of a host of elite players who ground out solid opening scores to survive the first loop around No. 2. The top nine players in the world posted scores of 71 or better, including No. 1 Tiger Woods (70), No. 2 Vijay Singh (70) and two-time Open champion Retief Goosen (68).

But does anyone really want to see our national championship contested on a course where the world’s elite players envision breaking par in the coming days as an impossibility? Golf has never been accused of being the most exciting of sports. But the combination of the USGA and Pinehurst has the potential to make the graceful game aesthetically unwatchable.

Thanks to the defensive style of play obliged by the sadistic setup, there was virtually no electricity in the air yesterday. There were just three eagles, the fewest in any one round on tour this year. There were no aces on the par-3s. And there were precious few birdies.

“There were no roars out there,” said Woods, commenting on the lack of atmosphere and excitement. “At Augusta [in the Masters], you hear eagle roars, you hear the big putts being made. Out here guys are just trying to make pars. That’s the nature of this golf course.”

That’s the nature of a golf course bereft of go-holes — relatively easy birdie holes where the entire field is seeing green. For the bulk of the field, there is just one reachable par-5 — the 565-yard No. 4. There is little in the way of topographical interest. There is no water, no elevation change, no true signature hole — just 18 bruisers sprawled along shockingly flat land among shockingly ugly scrub pines.

The genius of both the layout and its famed designer, Donald Ross, is unveiled in the subtleties around the greens, which are defined by tumbling run-offs and hollows. But even these chipping areas lack some luster compared to 1999, as a poor growing season forced some last-minute sod work, reducing consistency, limiting creativity and rankling the field.

“The closely mown areas are not in very good shape,” said Woods, who was completely satisfied with his 70. “It’s one of those masochistic things, isn’t it? You’re out there playing and saying, ‘Yeah, we can do it,’ as you blade it around the greens and struggle trying to make pars and bogeys and doubles. It’s kind of what U.S. Opens do, but especially this one.”

Just as in 1999, this week’s U.S. Open is likely to produce an unforgettable climax featuring an incomparable cast. But if and when that happens Sunday, it will be in spite of both the course and the USGA and not because of them.

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