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The U.S. Open at Torrey: No Fairways? No Greens? No Problem!
All I wanted was a frozen coffee and to watch a little golf. Instead, I got crushed, mushed, crammed, jammed, mangled, tangled, beaned and sardined by what could have passed for the second coming of every tribe of Visigoths that ever invaded Rome, Nome or the River Somme. That's what happened when, quite by accident, I walked headfirst into the heaving sea of humanity following the so-called "dream pairing" of Phil Mickelson, Tiger Woods and their straight-man, Adam Scott, on Friday at this year's U.S. Open.
I went to a golf match and, the next thing I knew, I was in the Torrey Pines version of a pinball machine, hockey game, biker rumble and the Lower Oakland Roller Derby finals all rolled into one. That's what I get for liking frappuccinos: one, two, three, blame it all on me.
On Day 2 of the U.S. Open, not only was the crowd raucous, but so was the golf as the top 10 players on the leaderboard played sloppily from tee to green, but still ended the day with the lowest scores in five years. As predicted, Torrey has played as mildly as the benign Olympia Yields…I mean Olympia Fields in 2003. Fairways and greens were for chumps.
Long-hitting Stewart Appleby, who has threatened to win a major on a few previous occasions, fired a 1-under 70, despite hitting only eight of 18 greens and nine of 14 fairways. Appleby's putter has been sizzling however; he has a mere 51 putts over the first 36 holes. The Australian's two-day total of 3-under leads Rocco Mediate, Woods and Sweden's Robert Karlsson by a stroke. D.J. Trahan, Davis Love III, Lee Westwood and Spain's Miguel Angel Jimenez are two back at 1-under 141. Five more players stand at level par, including former U.S. Open champions Ernie Els (1994, '97), and Geoff Ogilvy (2006), as well as England's Luke Donald and Australia's Robert Allenby.
Appleby wasn't the only player to turn the normal U.S. Open mantra of "fairways and greens" on its ear. Look at these staggering stats from many of the leaders:
Rocco Mediate - 11 of 18 greens, 11 of 14 fairways, 56 putts (over two days)
Robert Karlsson - 10 of 18 greens, 8 of 14 fairways, 58 putts
Tiger Woods - 14 of 18 greens, 9 of 14 fairways, 59 putts
D.J. Trahan - 9 of 18 greens, 11 of 14 fairways, 55 putts
Davis Love III - 10 of 18 greens, 9 of 14 fairways, 56 putts
Lee Westwood - 8 of 18 greens, 9 of 14 fairways, 56 putts
Robert Allenby - 9 of 18 greens, 7 of 14 fairways, 56 putts
Geoff Ogilvy - 11 of 18 greens, 6 of 14 fairways, 58 putts
These figures are staggering. Since 1951 at Oakland Hills, U.S. Opens have been the toughest test of any golf tournament in the world. "Usually, if you don't hit it in the fairway, it's chop it out and play for bogey," remarked 2005 champion Michael Campbell before the tournament began. With 5-over winning scores at Winged Foot and Oakmont, pundits wrote off Angel Cabrera's remarkable final-round 69 - where he hit only five fairways out of 14 - as a statistical outlier, a stat so out of the ordinary it should be discounted as a fluke.
This year, the whole leaderboard is missing fairways and greens, yet the players are scoring like the Open is an almost-ordinary PGA Tour stop. How is it if driving accuracy and greens in regulation are not rewarded at a U.S. Open?
"It's the graduated rough and the first cut around the green," said USGA vice president Jim Hyler. The first cut - 7 feet wide on either side - is allowing players to show their skill and creativity with recovery shots.
That's a welcome departure from prior tournaments. Shortly after his U.S. Open victory at Winged Foot, champion Geoff Ogilvy lamented that by playing in the U.S., he only got to show off his skill with 60-degree lob wedges. The recovery shot was almost eliminated from the U.S. Open, and the effect was - to use a racing analogy - a restrictor plate on the field, limiting birdies and triggering a long, slow attrition. It was almost a test to see who didn't play the worst instead of who played the best.
"We wanted to separate the truly great from the rest, but frequently ended up awarding the trophy to the merely pretty good," quipped Golf Observer's David Barrett.
Even so, the pendulum may have swung a little too far in favor of being too player-friendly. The U.S. Open's identity, its raison d'etre, is to be the strictest examination in golf. This year the players say almost unanimously that this has been the fairest set-up in many years - and yes, fair means easier.
"The Memorial should have been like this," joked Appleby. Excuse me, but when is the Memorial supposed to be tougher than the U.S. Open? Is this year's Open just a well-anointed rank-and-file Tour event? Maybe not, but it's trending that way.
Look at the first and second round scoring averages. At Winged Foot and Oakmont, scoring averages were between 76 and 77 - six- and seven-over par, respectively. But at Torrey, the second-round scoring average was a meager 74.88, just 3.88 strokes over par, half as much as in many years of U.S. Opens. The overall scoring average for the first two rounds was 75.25. The scores show this as the easiest Open in many decades. It's clear that for the first two days we have not tested driving accuracy or approach shots enough, and the set-up is one major reason.
There are other factors as well. Torrey Pines can also be called "Snorey Pines. It has three scoops of plain porridge for greens. The putting surfaces at Oakmont, Winged Foot, Shinnecock, Pebble Beach and Pinehurst have severe internal contouring. Even nearby La Costa Country Club, former home to the Tournament of Champions, has more undulation in its greens than this year's Open site. ESPN made a big show of how many players were missing short putts, but the stats tell a different story. Guys are getting up and down from the decks of sinking ships. The greens are fast - 13.5 on the Stimpmeter - but simple.
In addition, Torrey lacks vertical and horizontal movement in its topography and routing. In other words, it's flat and straight. Oakmont, Winged Foot, Shinnecock and Pinehurst are laid out on terrific terrain for golf. Fairways roll, sweep and bend over severe hills and deep swales, and play into the teeth of the most ruthless portions of the property. Torrey was routed to show off the views of the Pacific Ocean and canyons, but does not incorporate them. It's a municipal facility and play must keep moving. Therefore, strategy is kept to a minimum. "If it's too hard, it'll take six hours to play," said Craig Harte, a New Yorker who plays Bethpage Black regularly and played Torrey last year to compare the two. "New Yorkers don't care - we like showing off how tough we are and how tough our course is. Californians are too laid back for that."
I guess the old adage is true: live in New York, but leave before it makes you hard; live in sunny California, but leave before you become soft.
Rees Jones added some ridges to the greens, segmenting them into several smaller targets, but that doesn't affect the pros like it affects the Justin Timberlakes and Jim Nantzes of the world. With U-grooves, super-balls for golf balls, cannons for drivers and harpoons for wedges, the pros are doing things at Torrey they just couldn't do at Oakmont. For goodness sakes, they're playing 505-yard par-4s with a driver and a wedge. They're reaching gargantuan par-5s with driver and 6-iron. "With the rollback to V-grooves, we'll at least see them play a game more akin to ours and a long iron might be required with greater frequency," suggested sportswriter Jon Coulotte.
Still, both players and pundits barked, brayed and bellyached that the tournament would be a boring bogey-fest. Patrons pay good, green money to see birdies and they've become nearly extinct for decades in the U.S. Open. To its credit, the USGA listened and threw everyone a bone as here there's a bit more balance to the "test."
As they say in Australia, "good on 'ya" to them. With Bethpage up next year, we'll see the difference between Snorey and the Black. On media day this year, the Black's fairways were narrower than either side of its rough.
This set-up has to favor Woods, and Saturday's round will tell the tale. Based on prior performances, if he's ahead at the end of the day, Tiger wins. And if he's not, he'll have to muster his first come-from-behind win in a major. For goodness sake, his driving distance is a bloated 326.5 yards. Torrey is no Delilah and has no scissors to cut off Samson's hair. If Woods makes his putts, he wins.
Wind and weather are forecast for the weekend. Moreover, the USGA has the course in exactly the shape it wants. Officials can dial it in however they want. Need the scores to be a little higher? Tuck the pins and don't water anything. Is it fine the way it is? Let Mother Nature run the show. It is a testimony to how well Hyler, Chris Wightman, Mike Davis and all the volunteer superintendents have done to get the course in perfect condition for competition - to the micron.
Now just make one small adjustment. Make sure the long bombers and sideways hitters don't escape unscathed.
Oh, and next time, please don't combine two circuses in one with a 1-2-3 pairing on a golf course with as many bottlenecks as Torrey Pines. As Golf World's Tim Rosaforte said, "It's good for TV but horrible if you're a paying customer."
After all, everybody needs their seats and frozen coffees to enjoy the day. It's America, guys. We're pretty ornery without our coffee.