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SOUTHERN PINES, N.C. – What is it with the 17th hole and U.S. Opens this year?

It was the short par-4 17th at Oakmont two weeks ago, where the world’s most battle-tested men crashed and burned at the U.S. Open. It is the long par-4 17th here at Pine Needles where U.S. Women’s Open hopes and dreams could evaporate Sunday afternoon in the Carolina heat.

Let’s review. Jim Furyk hit driver for the fourth consecutive day Sunday at Oakmont’s 17th only to find the rough short, left of the green – a place he wasn’t able to reach the three previous days. He flubbed his chip, failed to get up and down and made bogey, essentially ending his Open chances. Tiger Woods blew a 3-wood into the right greenside bunker, caught a pebble square on his second shot and made a disappointing par. Heck, even eventual champion Angel Cabrera made bogey on the 313-yard hole three times, including in the final round. This from an aggressive player, who actually played the hole conservatively.

This week, 17 again could decide the champion. Or at least eliminate a handful of hopefuls. The 440-yard dogleg left will play as one of the toughest on the course. The U.S. Golf Association’s Web site says, “players who can hit a big draw over the bunker in the turn and around the pine trees can save themselves two to four clubs worth of distance on their approach shot. A restored bunker on the right side of the green can make for a more difficult approach.”

After reading that, and hearing several players talk about how difficult the 17th is, I wandered out to the tee (yes, members of the press get out of the media center now and again) and walked the hole with Morgan Pressel, who was paired with Cristie Kerr, Heather Young and Silvia Cavalleri.

Pressel isn’t one of the LPGA’s longest hitters, but still averages around 245 yards per drive. Her best option is to aim for the middle of the fairway because the left fairway bunker is in play. So Pressel hit a beautiful draw that split the fairway but still was 206 yards from the green. A 3-wood was the only play, yet Pressel was still short of the green, a place where she wasn’t disappointed.

“And I hit a pretty good shot in here,” she said. Pressel hit driver off the deck the previous day on that hole and wouldn’t be surprised if she had to again over the next four days.

Juli Inkster has hit as much as a 7-wood into the green, Jeong Jang has hit either a 5-wood or a 3-wood, Kelli Kuehne has hit 3-wood twice and the shortest club Lorena Ochoa has hit into the green has been a 4-iron. Ochoa has been tempted to hit 3-wood off the tee but doesn’t want to hit 5-wood for an approach into a tricky green.

“It’s not really hard,” Jang said, “just long.”

Said Kuehne: “It’s a heck of a lot of hole.”

Not for everyone, though. McDonald’s LPGA winner Suzann Pettersen played a Tuesday practice round with Laura Davies and they both smoked driver down the left side of the fairway and cut off most of the dogleg. Pettersen hit 7-iron, Davies 8-iron.

“Seventeen is probably the longest, because you have to be quite aggressive off the line with our distance,” Pettersen said. “Otherwise you hit it in the rough right.”

In case you’re wondering, the 216-yard 17th at Whistling Straits – host of next week’s U.S. Senior Open – has been labeled as one of Pete Dye’s most intimidating par 3 holes anywhere.

But first things first. It’s time for the women to take center stage. And 17 likely will prove as difficult as it did for their male counterparts.

“If we get a breeze into our face one day, it may turn into an unfair hole,” said one caddie.

“As long as you miss it short, you’re fine,” Kuehne said. “I’ll take it short of the green everyday.”

And hope like hell you make par.

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