- The Washington Times - Tuesday, June 13, 2006

MAMARONECK, N.Y. — The U.S. Open has returned to the scene of the USGA’s seminal sadistic change.

When the world’s best golfers arrived at Winged Foot for the 1974 U.S. Open, the season’s second major had yet to acquire its current reputation as a 72-hole torture test. But four diabolical days later, Hale Irwin lifted the championship trophy at 7 over (287), and the Open’s tradition of attrition was born.

“The golf course was just merciless,” Jack Nicklaus remembered earlier this year. “Winged Foot is an extremely difficult layout under the kindest of circumstances, but the greens that week were firmer and faster and the rough deeper than anything we’d ever seen. I started the tournament by putting it off the first green from 16 feet above the hole, and it was pretty much all downhill from there.”

After opening with a 75 that year, Nicklaus quipped, “The last 18 holes are very difficult.”

The average score for the field the week was an ego-galling 76.99, as Winged Foot’s West Course (now 7,276 yards) yielded just eight sub-par rounds and spawned the Dick Schaap book, “Massacre at Winged Foot.”

Irwin’s winning score was the highest in relation to par at any post-World War II Open other than the 1963 championship at the Country Club of Brookline, where a four-day gale left Julius Boros holding the laurels at 9 over.

The weather at Winged Foot in 1974 was perfect, but there was plenty of bluster emanating from the locker room, where players felt the USGA was trying to humiliate them. Asked whether the setup was intended to embarrass the world’s best players, the USGA’s Sandy Tatum famously responded: “No, we’re trying to identify them.”

The USGA has fallen back on that line many times in the three decades since, attempting to justify dubious pin positions (Olympic Club in 1998 and Southern Hills in 2001), outlandish forced carries (Bethpage in 2002) and virtually unplayable conditions (Shinnecock Hills in 2004) in its quest to create golf’s ultimate test.

And the boys from Far Hills (N.J.) couldn’t resist tweaking Winged Foot for this week’s action. They moved back the gallery ropes and added a third cut of rough to the course.

“Yeah, [in the past] guys like Tiger [Woods] and Phil [Mickelson] employed the theory of if you’re going to miss, miss big and wind up where the gallery has trampled everything down,” John Cook said yesterday. “Those spots are pure jungle now. Miss big now and you’re in eight to 10 inches of rough hoping you can wedge out. Being an accuracy guy, I’m all for it.”

Of course, the USGA had to amp up the challenge for the short, straight set, as well. To that end, the course measures 289 yards longer than it did when Davis Love III dominated it at the 1997 PGA Championship, coasting to a five-stroke victory over Justin Leonard at 11 under on a soft, slow track.

Serious sod steroids were administered to No. 9, which will be the longest par 4 in Open history (514 yards), and No. 12, a par 5 that grew from 535 to 640 yards courtesy of a new teebox. And unless a monsoon descends upon Westchester, there won’t be anything soft and slow about Winged Foot’s greens this week.

Already among the smallest and most undulating putting surfaces on the planet, A.W. Tillinghast’s signature gems have been trimmed and rolled to stimp at 12.5 this week.

“Anything above the hole is pretty much dead,” said Jeff Sluman, who accompanied Woods on his nine-hole practice loop yesterday and spoke for the group. “I’d say this is probably the toughest everyday course in America. By that I mean that it’s probably really tough for the members on any given Saturday dogfight. Add the USGA into the formula, and we’re in for some fun.”

The extent of that entertainment depends to a large degree on the weather. Though the USGA isn’t likely to lose complete control of the greens like it did at Shinnecock, Winged Foot is simply a more difficult course on its own merits. The incredibly sharp lines of the green complexes make the line between a quality and costly shot finer at Winged Foot than perhaps at any other course on the planet. A rarity in the modern game, the layout values precision iron play above all else. And after two straight relatively mild Slam trips to Mamaroneck (1984 U.S. Open and 1997 PGA), it looks fairly certain where the USGA intends upon planting the ‘Foot this week.

“If we don’t get any rain, this course could be right up the USGA’s alley,” Cook said. “This is definitely one of the top five Open venues because it’s probably the fairest difficult test of golf we ever see.”

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