CHASKA, Minn. -- When it was announced five years ago that the U.S. Open was coming back to Hazeltine National Golf Club in 1991, there was understandable grumbling among the players on the PGA Tour. They didn't know whether to boo or moo.
But the course that precipitated one of the biggest controversies in Open history when the tournament was played here 21 years ago is not the same course that will be played when the 91st championship begins today.
"We might have played a better course than we thought we did," four-time Open champion Jack Nicklaus said yesterday. "I think it was unfairly criticized to some degree, because we didn't play well. Was some of it justified? Probably so, because they wouldn't have changed it."
The course, originally designed by noted golf architect Robert Trent Jones in 1962, has matured since Dave Hill's infamous crack that the one thing lacking was "80 acres of corn and a few cows." Hill went on to say that "they should plow it up and start over again."
But Hill, who would finish a distant second to Briton Tony Jacklin, wasn't alone in his criticism. Bob Rosburg said, "It's like playing in a kennel, with all the doglegs."
Nicklaus called it "blindman's bluff." After an opening-round 81, his worst score in an Open, Nicklaus said bluntly, "Pardon me while I throw up."
Sensitive to the criticism, and hoping for another shot at a major championship, Hazeltine officials called Rees Jones, son of the course designer. The younger Jones rebuilt the course in 1978 nearly from scratch and came back four years ago to put the finishing touches on it.
Jones, who was responsible for redoing The Country Club in Brookline, Mass., for the 1988 Open, apparently took Hill's suggestion to heart. Only four holes were left untouched. Though the trees have grown in, the 7,149-yard, par-72 course still doesn't seem like the older, traditional places on which the USGA likes to play its showcase event.
"This almost feels like a British Open," former champion Tom Watson said, "with the broad expanse, the wind on the driving range and not a lot of definition."
A chance of thunderstorms is forecast, but not the 35-mph winds that played havoc with opening-round scores in 1970, when the average score was 79.
The complaints this time around are not so much with the way the course was rebuilt, but with the way the USGA has set it up. The 5-inch rough is an inch higher than it was last year at Medinah. The greens are more severe than any others in recent Open history.
"At this moment, it is one of the most difficult courses we have played in the U.S. Open," said defending champion Hale Irwin.
The hole that has spurred the most debate is No. 16, a 384-yard par-4 that has a tree blocking an approach shot from the right side of the fairway.
"An awkward hole," Nicklaus said. "You could see a lot of high scores on it. But sometimes you need a hole like that to give a course its signature."
Irwin said that, in terms of testing one's patience, these could be the most difficult Open conditions since he won the first of his three titles at Winged Foot in 1974. If the weather stays hot and the wind kicks in, the scores could balloon.
"If we have a blustery day, the scores could get comical," said Irwin, who predicted the possibility of six-hour rounds. "You could see a lot of scores in the 80s and, I dare say, in the 90s."
Nicklaus, who will be playing in his 35th straight Open, said, "If the conditions stay the same as today, it's the most difficult Open course I have ever played."
Considering its Open history, Hazeltine has been a pleasant surprise to most of the players. Only five in the 156-man field played here the last time, and a handful of others have played the course as amateurs.
"You heard about all the things that happened in 1970 and you came here a little curious," said former Masters champion Larry Mize. "I think it's a very fair test."
Greg Norman, who has been known to assail courses he doesn't like, went out of his way to praise Hazeltine. "I think it's a fabulous course. . . . Dave Hill must have had his head in the sand," said Norman.
Hill was surprised when he returned last year, at the club's invitation. He said recently: "It's grown into a lovely course. It's definitely a fun golf course and a demanding course."
Who will have the most fun this week? There is a long list of possible contenders, not quite stretching the length of the alphabet, from red-hot Billy Andrade to Masters champion Ian Woosnam. Others to consider: Seve Ballesteros, Jose-Maria Olazabal and Irwin.
"You have to go with the horses who are running well," said Watson.
There are a lot of horses here this week. But no cows.
What they said about Hazeltine in 1970 . . .
* Dave Hill: "Just because you cut the grass and put up flags doesn't mean you have a golf course. What [the course] lacks is 80 acres of corn and a few cows. My two kids could lay out a better course than that. The man who designed this golf course held the blueprints upside down."
* Jack Nicklaus: "The course lacks definition. It's like playing blindman's bluff."
* Bob Rosburg: "It's like playing in a kennel, with all the doglegs."
* Jack Nicklaus: "I think it was unfairly criticized to some degree, because we didn't play well. Was some of it justified? Probably so, because they wouldn't have changed it. I think it's a very good golf course."
* Greg Norman: "I think it's a fabulous course. I don't think there's a weak hole. I think it's one of the best golf courses I've played on for the U.S. Open. Dave Hill must have had his head in the sand."
* Nick Faldo: "The course is good, very straightforward, an honest test of golf. No tricks. No surprises."