Thunderstorms, mowing the rough take a bite out of the course

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Peter Diana, Post-Gazette
Kenneth Ferrie plays an early morning practice round yesterday -- the day before the U.S. Open begins for real. Ferrie tees off on No. 12.
By Gerry Dulac, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette

There were several noises emanating from the Oakmont Country Club property, the most prominent of which was a late afternoon thunderstorm that dumped nearly a half-inch of rain on the course and produced hail that bounced off pavement like, well, golf balls.

But even the thunder claps couldn't entirely drown the sighs of relief coming from the players' locker room. Or the groans coming from the Oakmont clubhouse, where members already were bothered by another mowing of the rough.

It wasn't even enough to prevent the sound of workers scurrying to find the boxes with the red numbers, the ones that indicate sub-par scores on the leader board.

When the 107th U.S. Open starts this morning, the field of 156 players will find a beast that has lost its growl, a Doberman that has lost its teeth. The course they played for three days during practice rounds, the one that prompted Sergio Garcia to list par as 78, will bear little resemblance to the soft, forgiving layout that will greet the first group at 7 a.m.

That is encouraging news to just about everyone in the field except Phil Mickelson, whose injured left wrist might have an even more difficult time trying to slash through 5 inches of wet rough.

"It's not what we would like to have," said Tim Moraghan, championship agronomist for the United States Golf Association. "But we're hoping to get [the course] back close to where we were."

John Zimmers, Oakmont's course superintendent, was not as optimistic.

"I don't know if we can get it back to where we were," he said last night.

And that is not good news for a course that already was concerned the rough was too short and the greens too receptive. For all the bluster about Oakmont being the hardest U.S. Open course, consider that two of the lowest scoring records in tournament history -- Johnny Miller's final-round 63 in 1973 and Larry Nelson 36-hole score of 10-under 132 in 1983 -- were each posted at Oakmont after several days of rain.

"This golf course is, without a doubt, difficult," said Tiger Woods, the world's No. 1 player who is seeking to atone for what happened last year when he missed the cut at Winged Foot, the first time he missed a cut in a major championship since turning professional. "We all know that. But it's also fair. I just think we're going to all see what happens on pin locations, because they can go crazy on pin positions and make it impossible."

Yesterday's rainfall -- officially listed as 0.4 inches -- wasn't enough to drastically alter the way the course will play, Moraghan said. And it won't alter the way the course is set up, either, he said.

Still, it was enough to soften the greens and make them even more receptive, even though the surfaces were holding shots well before the afternoon storm.

"We were right where we wanted," Moraghan said. "The rain has cut into that a little bit."

The players will not be upset.

"This one has been built up as being tougher than the rest," said Padraig Harrington of Ireland, seeking to become the first European player to win the U.S. Open since Tony Jacklin in 1970. "It does make Winged Foot seem very pleasant, let's say."

The winning score at Winged Foot, posted by Geoff Ogilvy, was 5-over 285, the highest winning score since Hale Irwin won with 7 over at Winged Foot in 1974. Oakmont, though, was going to buzz past that total like a Maserati on a four-lane highway.

Players were predicting winning scores of 8-over par or higher, based on fairways that sloped into thick rough and greens that would race at between 13.5 and 14.5 on the Stimpmeter, according to Jim Hyler, the USGA's chairman of the championship committee.

"I think it's definitely tougher than last year," Garcia said.

"It's a lot more severe than Winged Foot," Harrington said. "If you miss the fairway, those hazards -- the bunkers or the couple of drains that they have on the course -- are very, very tight to the edge of the fairways. I think we'd all rather be in the rough."

Ah, the rough.

The USGA ordered the graduated rough mowed again yesterday morning, keeping with the stipulated lengths -- 1 1/2 inches in the first cut, 23/4 in the first cut of primary rough and 5 inches in the second cut of primary rough. That, though, dismayed Oakmont officials, who think the rough is already easier for the U.S. Open than it played for the members for most of the past month.

"Cut what rough?" Woods asked, mockingly. "I know they had the mowers out there. I don't know that they did anything."

Then he added, "If you get a ball that sits down in the grain, you have no chance of advancing it with anything more than a wedge. But if you get one downgrain that sits marginal, you might want to take a chance at it."

Either way, for the first round today and at least into the early part of the weekend, Oakmont will lay down and play dead for the players. At least, more so than has been feared.

When asked if Oakmont were the toughest U.S. Open venue he has seen, two-time champion Ernie Els didn't hesitate with his answer.

"No. Length-wise and toughness-wide, I still think Bethpage and Winged Foot [were tougher] because those courses are so long," said Els, who won the first of two Open titles at Oakmont in 1994. "This week, the golf course plays a bit shorter. But the greens make up for it.

"These are the toughest greens we'll ever play in U.S. Open history, or any other golf tournament we play. But, you know, at the moment, it's fair."

And that was before the storm.

Bob Donaldson, Post-Gazette
Jim Furyk hits out of the rough on No. 9 early in the day. Furyk is considered one of the favorites going into the tournament.
Click photo for larger image.

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PLUS:

Click to view video report
PG Golf Writer Gerry Dulac wraps up the day's developments at Oakmont yesterday, with an update on Mickelson and Woods.

Video: Rain falls on Oakmont and golf scores may benefit

Blog: Rough Shots

Your Guide to the U.S. Open

Our U.S. Open section



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