Door is wide Open at Pinehurst

With layout, weather, predictions perilous

June 17, 1999|By Don Markus | Don Markus,SUN STAFF

PINEHURST, N.C. -- Imagine, if you will, the scene here come Sunday should Tiger Woods walk up the 18th fairway on the famed Pinehurst No. 2 course, a three-shot lead on the scoreboard and his first U.S. Open in his pocket.

Now try to picture what it would be like if Colin Montgomerie of Scotland finds himself in the same position, the long-suffering and often-blustering bridesmaid finally claiming his first major championship.

And here's a third scenario: Greg Norman, his shoulder healed and his confidence revived from his runner-up finish at the Masters, grabbing hold of the Open demons he has chased since losing in a playoff to Fuzzy Zoeller 15 years ago.

The 99th U.S. Open begins this morning with these scenarios -- and many more, given the nature of the Donald Ross course and soggy conditions -- being played out over the next four (or five) days at the Pinehurst Resort and Country Club.

With two victories in his past two events, Woods again has cranked up Tigermania, but the 23-year-old is approaching this year's Open with a maturity he didn't possess in his first two as a pro.

"You try to play as many holes [in practice] as possible, but you don't want to burn yourself out on Thursday," said Woods, who has finished tied for 19th and tied for 18th as a pro in the Open. "In U.S. Opens, if you hit the ball poorly, you're not going to be around."

Montgomerie and Norman have been in the hunt at many Opens, but have always fallen short. Montgomerie has finished second three times, most recently two years ago at Congressional. Norman has finished second twice among his five top 10s.

"Because I've come so close in this particular event, I'd like to take that one step further," said Montgomerie, 35, who, like Woods, has won twice in the last month. "Before my career finishes, I'd like to say that I won in America, whatever tournament it might be."

Norman, 44, would like to claim another victory, wherever it might be. Since winning the NEC World Series in 1997, he has yet to fully recover from major shoulder surgery last year. It was his performance at Augusta, where he finished third, that put Norman back on the radar screen.

"Augusta helped in a lot of ways," Norman said yesterday. "I think back to the shots I hit at Augusta. I hit a lot more good than I did bad. Hopefully, you can take that feeling, that momentum, and you're trying to take that feeling in."

Truth is, there are any number of viable candidates for this year's Open championship.

Given the slightly wider fairways than is the case at most Opens, erratic drivers such as Woods, reigning Masters champion Jose Maria Olazabal and Mark O'Meara will have more of a margin for error.

Given the U.S. Golf Association's decision to forgo the high collar of rough around the greens to keep the short-grass chipping areas of the legendary Scottish architect intact, it will give advantage to creative players such as Woods, defending champion Lee Janzen and Phil Mickelson.

And given the forecast of rain throughout the week, it could make for a wet and wild ride.

"I think the way the setup is brings a lot more people into the mix," said David Duval, the world's top-ranked player.

Whether it brings Duval into the mix remains to be seen.

After finishing tied for third two weeks ago in the Memorial -- his best showing since his fourth victory of the year, at The Players Championship in March -- Duval had a now-publicized run-in with a hot teapot.

Duval is not making a tempest of the burns he suffered on his hand.

"It's not frustrating at all, because it hasn't hampered anything," said Duval.

"It hasn't prevented me from playing, and it doesn't seem like it's going to prevent me from performing as I would like."

Duval had his best finish in five Open appearances last year at Olympic in San Francisco, a tie for seventh. But just as he came into this year's Masters being reminded that he has yet to win a major, it also has been mentioned here.

How tough the conditions are here will depend on the weather. The intriguing part of Pinehurst No. 2 has always been its crowned greens, which force players to be more creative when their approach shots don't stick.

The rain could turn them into grass dart boards.

"The golf course is playing a little more friendly than I thought it would," said Woods. "I thought the rough would be higher, the fairways would be narrower."

By widening the fairways, the USGA did something else. It lengthened the list of legitimate contenders. The scenarios for Sunday afternoon -- or a Monday playoff -- seem endless.

99th U.S. Open

When: Today-Sunday

Where: Pinehurst (N.C.) Resort and Country Club, No. 2

Purse: $3 million (winner receives $535,000)

Defending champion: Lee Janzen

TV: ESPN/Ch. 11

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