- The Washington Times - Tuesday, June 16, 2009

FARMINGDALE, N.Y. | Welcome back to golf’s pure power paradise.

With its combination of unparalleled length and relatively flat, soft greens, Bethpage Black’s famous first-tee warning sign might as well carry an addendum for this week’s 109th U.S. Open: Bombers only — short-knockers need not apply.

“It was just a big ballpark,” said Tiger Woods, the only player to best par at the 2002 Open.

Woods finished at 3-under 277 seven years ago, clipping runner-up Phil Mickelson by three strokes on a brutal course layout that has been lengthened by 212 yards for this week’s major shindig.

“Guys could not get to the fairway on Nos. 10 and 12,” Woods said. “There were a lot of hard holes out there. And the rough being four or five inches and thick, nobody got to the green in regulation if you hit the ball in the rough. You had to drive it great. It was just a tremendous test. The golf course was a very big golf course at the time. It’s even bigger now.”

At first blush, perhaps this week’s 7,426-yard incarnation seems somewhat softer than the layout that tormented the field in 2002. The forced carries at Nos. 10 and 12 have been reduced thanks to a slew of tweaks by famed Open Doctor Rees Jones, no longer prompting shorter hitters like Scott Verplank and Jeff Maggert to joke about 3-yard fairways (the width of the players’ walking paths between tees and fairways).

But a closer look at the setup reveals this week’s version of the nation’s fifth-ranked public course (by Golf Digest) should make Bethpage even more bomber-friendly than the 2002 bully.

Not only has the course been lengthened, giving it the longest full-swing quotient of any major in history (218.41 yards) and making it the first Open track boasting three 500-plus yard par-4s (Nos. 7, 10 and 12), two other major changes have de-emphasized the importance of driving accuracy.

The average fairway width has been increased to 29 yards (two yards wider than in 2002). And the USGA again has decided to employ graduated rough this week after last year’s plaudits for the concept at Torrey Pines.

Instead of a universal sea of hack-and-hope rough outside the 6-foot, first-cut swath, there will be a 20-foot swath of 2- to 3-inch rough outside the first cut before errant drivers reach the truly sadistic 6-inch stuff. While the principle of more sternly penalizing more wayward drives is sound, the result gives the game’s longer hitters 40 more feet to play with off the tee.

“I think the graduated penalty for a miss is the first time I’ve really seen it this well done,” Mickelson said after a reconnaissance round last week. “If you just miss a fairway, you’re not penalized with a hack-out shot. … If you try to get the ball down there far enough and you just miss it, I think you’ll have a short enough iron where you can actually get it on the surface.”

Most players agree the graduated rough will yield lower scores than in 2002.

“I think scores are going to be OK,” Masters runner-up Kenny Perry said Monday. “I don’t think they are going to be that high. I think [the winning score] is going to be better than what Tiger won with. I might be wrong on that assumption, but I remember the rough just off the fairway in 2002 was very severe. It was definitely chip out, whereas this year I think you can definitely play out of it a little bit.”

That ability to play out of the first cut is greatly enhanced by hitting a 7- or 8-iron out of it, not a 4- or 5-iron.

The importance of length is obvious when looking at the seven longest major championships in history, according to fullswing quotient. Only six players recorded top-10 finishes in three or more of those majors: Woods (five), Mickelson (four), Sergio Garcia (three), Geoff Ogilvy (three), Vijay Singh (three) and Padraig Harrington (three). Of those six players, only Harrington ranks outside the top 36 in driving distance on the PGA Tour. None ranks in the top 90 in driving accuracy.

It wouldn’t be prudent to dismiss the shorter half of this week’s field before Thursday’s first shot is struck. After all, Rocco Mediate’s near miss at prodigious Torrey Pines last year is proof that there’s always hope for golf’s gritty buntmeisters.

But the smart money on Long Island is riding on the game’s big sticks.

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