This is fun? Bethpage gets brutal

FARMINGDALE, N.Y. – This is probably what it was like back when Willie Anderson was trying to hold off Alex Smith 108 years ago.

The Myopia Hunt Club in South Hamilton, Mass., hardly was a garden spot, and with a cold, northeast wind blowing, it was “too chilly for comfort,” at least according to the New York Times dispatch.

You wanted joy on those June days in the Boston countryside? It didn’t exist, except, perhaps, for when Anderson came home in a tidy 81 (hey, it was his low round of the tournament, so stop laughing) to force a playoff with Smith. When Anderson shot 85 the next day, he earned the first of his four titles, mostly because Smith made a triple bogey at the par-4 15th and a double bogey at the par-4 18th to score 86.

Then, and only then, did Anderson force a smile, helping to cement a legacy that has been carried on for 101 subsequent stagings of the United States Open. This week’s 109th rendition isn’t any different, because as sure as you’ll hear noise from the New York fans, you won’t find players in possession of smiles.

Hey, what’s to smile about when you have an endless stretch of real estate dotted with deep bunkers, elevated greens, three par 4s over 500 yards and conditions that would need two weeks of dry weather to be classified as soft?

Yes, Bethpage Black is a virtual sponge on the eve of the U.S. Open, which is why the mood is even more somber than ever at the national championship. For officials, there is the very real concern that any more rain will render parts of the course unplayable, especially the 18th fairway.

“That is built on a swamp,” said Jim Hyler, vice president of the U.S. Golf Association and chairman of this championship committee. “It does not drain very well. It is very, very wet.”

As Hyler spoke, executive director David Fay and president Jim Vernon sat alongside. None of them wore a smile, not even when talk focused on the return to this majestic public golf course in an area that no doubt will support the cause with large crowds. In that respect, they were like players, who annually frown during their stay at the U.S. Open, thanks to a golf course that is meant to beat them up, and usually does.

Even before players got a glimpse at the weather forecast, they seemed deflated.

“I hit a lot woods – most woods I’ve ever hit on a golf course,” David Toms said. “It felt like we were playing Spyglass out there today.”

Toms is one of the many medium-to-short hitters who are seemingly overmatched by Bethpage Black and its 7,438 available yards. Now Hyler insisted it will never play to that yardage, but Toms and others still figure to be up against it.

“Normally, (at a U.S. Open) guys do whatever they can to get it in the fairway. (But this week) it’s different. There’s really no more than a yard roll. Balls are sticking 2 inches deep.”

Toms is not alone. Players have pretty much tried to prepare themselves for the headache that lies ahead and tried to shake the thought that Tiger Woods already has this thing wrapped up.

“Even though the rough is not thick,” Sergio Garcia said, “it gets very heavy.”

“Really difficult,” Geoff Ogilvy said.

“Hard. Long. Wet. Rough is thick,” Henrik Stenson offered.

“Very long, very hard,” Angel Cabrera said.

And on and on it went at every player interview, to the point where you have to wonder whether somewhere Jack Nicklaus might be wishing that he were in the field. After all, such talk used to go a long way toward his U.S. Open success.

“As the players came in Monday to start their practice rounds and they said, ‘Oh, God, that rough is so deep. Oh, these greens are so hard,’ I’d just check them off. Don’t have to worry about them,” Nicklaus said just last week at his Memorial Tournament.

Nicklaus explained that he kept a positive, patient mindset and let others knock themselves out of contention. It never was easy, Nicklaus confirmed, but he understood that at the very heart of the U.S. Open was an effort to take players out of an accustomed comfort zone.

Such a dichotomy has always been at the heart of the U.S. Open – you want to be there, but you can’t stand it at the same time. Ask Anderson, whose 331 strokes are the most strokes ever in winning a 72-hole U.S. Open, or as Bruce Lietzke, who played 11 times in the championship before throwing in the towel. Ask Tom Watson, who covets his 1982 U.S. Open, but was among the many who were forced to walk when traffic woes caused havoc in 1984 at Winged Foot. Or, ask Padraig Harrington, who when introduced to Winged Foot in 2006 said, “If we had to play golf like this every week of the year, we’d all end up in the looney bin.”

Toms feels similarly this week. So do many others.

But don’t blame Bethpage or the weather or the New York crowd. Instead, focus on the real culprit – the U.S. Open. It was always meant to be the most challenging week of golf, not a week at Club Med.

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