Conditions at Winged Foot again getting out of hand

U.s. Open

June 16, 2006

MAMARONECK, N.Y. — MAMARONECK, N.Y.-- --The leader board was definitely worth a second look. This year's U.S. Open started like a flashback sequence.

Colin Montgomerie at the top? Tiger Woods and David Duval neck and neck? What year was it exactly and does this mean there's a new Seinfeld episode on tonight?

Our eyes weren't lying, though. That really was Monty leading the pack, and sure enough, Woods and Duval - Nos. 1 and 2 in the world in 1999 - enter today's second round one shot apart, both well off the early pace. (Woods tied for 68th place; Duval tied for 90th).

After 156 players finished play yesterday, there were only two clear winners: A.W. Tillinghast and Mike Davis.

Tillinghast is the legendary course designer who drew up the course at Winged Foot Golf Club that opened in 1923 (his name also appears on the birth certificate of the East Course at Baltimore Country Club in Timonium), and Davis is the USGA sadist who tweaked the Winged Foot course this year, making it about as easy to play as one of Pete Townshend's smashed-up guitars.

In Davis' defense, this is what the USGA does. The U.S. Open is like its annual holiday party, but instead of door prizes, each player gets a swift kick to the shin. You get the feeling that if these people designed roller coasters, no lunch would be safe.

Yesterday's play needed a PG-13 rating, and here's a warning: It probably will get worse as the tournament rolls on.

No one is surprised, of course. The last time a major was held here, Davis Love III won on a much easier course, shooting 11-under in the 1997 PGA Championship. But more memorably, this is the site of the infamous "Massacre at Winged Foot," when Hale Irwin shot 7-over-par in 1974 and still won the championship. At that year's Open, not a single player broke par in the opening round. Gary Player was the only one who managed an even-par 70 on the first day.

And now they're at it again - the legendary follow-up to the legendary Massacre, a second slaughter 32 years in the making. Sequels are never as good as the originals, so don't expect scores to go up too much, but no one thinks this year's Open champ will set any records with his score.

"You just try to play for par here, whether it's Thursday or Sunday," said Phil Mickelson, who begins play today one shot behind the leader. "Even is a good score. I happen to think over par is going to win it, but that's just because I suspect the course will play harder and faster as the week wears on."

How tough is it? The doglegs seem to have doglegs. The fairways are narrow enough to hop over. And the greens are as unpredictable as the swirling wind overhead. The USGA cut the rough in tiers this year. But the first cut still covers your shoes, and if you land in the second cut, you'd better have a search party ready to go.

Woods, of course, served as the face of the first-day fallout. After a nine-week layoff, he played like he was starving for just one more vacation day. Six bogeys on the front, a double bogey on the back, six shots above par and seven shots behind the leader. He flubbed when he wanted to flop and choked when he wanted to chip. Woods could have dropped to his knees, beaten the grass with his fists and he still wouldn't have hit the fairway.

"You've just got to plod along," Woods said. "If I shoot under par the next two days, I'll be right there."

Players today will have a much better understanding of what's needed out there - which includes rosary beads, a genie and a few mulligans - but they really don't have much recourse.

Winged Foot was designed for such difficulty. The 514-yard ninth hole is the longest par-4 in U.S. Open history. The 640-yarder at No. 12 is the second-longest hole in tournament history. Barely one-third of the players yesterday hit the fairway on No. 15, and on 12 of the 18 holes, fewer than half of the golfers managed to hit the green in regulation.

"The golf course is very difficult. It always is at a U.S. Open, I get that," Mickelson said. "But the greens here are very tough to putt. They're getting firmer. The fairways are extremely tight, hard to hit. The rough is brutally tough."

The USGA doesn't take such dissection as a complaint. It's a compliment as much as anything. The goal is to make each hole challenging. The goal is to force players like Woods and Mickelson and Montgomerie to prove that they're really the top players in the world.

It was at the Massacre in 1974 that everyone accused Sandy Tatum, chairman of the USGA's championship committee at the time, of trying to embarrass players by making the course too difficult.

"We're not trying to humiliate the best golfers in the world," Tatum said at the time. "We're simply trying to identify who they are."

Fitting words that continue to echo this week off Winged Foot's tall trees and through her narrow fairways. It's shaping up like another Massacre-in-the-making, where surviving is the same as winning. rick.maese@baltsun.com

Read Rick Maese's blog at baltimoresun.com/maeseblog

U.S. OPEN

Mamaroneck, N.Y., through Sunday TV today: 10 a.m. to 2:55 p.m., ESPN; 3 p.m. to 5 p.m., chs. 11, 4; 5 p.m. to 7 p.m., ESPN

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