When the second round of the U.S. Open ended last Friday, so did any doubt that the USGA would do anything to identify the best player, even if that meant having to humiliate everyone in the process. Nobody walked away unscathed after 36 holes at the Olympic Club, not even many of those who made the cut, which came at seven over par, the same as last year.
Tiger Woods, the top-ranked player in the world, had to rally to play on the weekend after four-putting, twice, in the first two rounds. Brad Faxon, Tom Lehman and Mark O'Meara also four-putted during the first two days. The easygoing Lehman went postal on Friday when his four-jack on the 18th hole turned a solid round into a 75. He reamed the USGA official who was walking with his threesome, then blasted another one in the scoring tent ( Lehman later apologized to both men) before storming to the locker room. On the way he declined an interview request, saying, "Give me half an hour, or I might kill somebody." He continued to vent in the clubhouse, where expletives were followed by the sound of slamming locker doors.
The blowup was one of many caused by the location of the hole on the 18th green. By the end of the day, as the sun and the wind combined to speed up the putting surface, the back-left pin position was making players look foolish. Casey Martin, trying to finish off a superb round, landed his approach shot on the 347-yard hole near the back edge, 15 feet past the pin. His ball began to trickle back toward the cup and nearly stopped three feet away. Nearly. The ball crept another 25 feet as the gallery's cheers turned to cries of dismay. Martin three-putted, giving him a bogey, and finished with a 71, which left him five over, instead of a possible 69.
The absurdity of the pin position was made even more apparent when the group of Fred Couples, John Daly and Frank Nobilo reached the green an hour later. All three left their approach shots below the hole. Nobilo's 35-foot putt pulled up short, then dribbled back toward him for 25 feet. Couples's ball did the same thing. Daly just missed his first try, then watched his ball roll three feet backward. "My ball was one roll from going all the way to the front of the green," Nobilo said. "That was the worst pin ever seen in a major. I'm just glad it wasn't Sunday. That pin could've determined the winner."
Said Daly, "People watching on TV probably thought we were idiots. That's not golf, and it's not fair. It was stupid, absolutely stupid. Thank god our Tour doesn't do that."
Payne Stewart put an exclamation point on the matter when his 10-foot sidehiller for birdie at 18 took a left turn before it reached the hole. Stewart went to mark his ball, but it wouldn't stop moving. After a few moments of waiting, he disgustedly walked to the bottom of the green as the ball followed like a trained dog. He two-putted from there for bogey, which reduced his lead to one over Jeff Maggert and Bob Tway. "That pin is cute, very cute," Stewart said. "I'll use other descriptions in the locker room. It was bordering on ridiculous."
David Fay, the executive director of the USGA, admitted that cutting the hole on that area of the green was a mistake. He said that only the front portion of the green is playable, but putting the pin up front all four days would have caused complaints about footprints, spike marks and wear and tear. The USGA gambled that by watering the back of the green and mowing it less, it could create an alternative hole location, and lost. "We expected it to be the most difficult [location] on the green, but thought it would be acceptable," Fay said. "We made a decision, and it didn't turn out the way we had hoped. That was a miscalculation."
The 18th wasn't impossible. Jack Nicklaus holed a 40-footer for birdie to make the cut. "I figured I had to make that putt to play the weekend," he said. "Somehow I willed it in." Lee Porter backed in a wedge shot for an eagle 2 that vaulted him to a fourth-place tie after 36. "I was just glad I didn't have to pull," he said.
Kirk Triplett, a late finisher on Friday, didn't wait for his backward-rolling putt on 18 to finish its trip. He jammed his putter down on the ball, stopping it, then tapped in. That Open-induced frustration cost him a two-stroke penalty—not that it mattered. He finished 12 over par. "I suspect he was trying to make a statement," said Fay.
Olympic's other 17 holes were difficult enough without trickery. The five-inch rough was too much for Tommy Tolles, who aggravated a back injury and quit after five holes. Dudley Hart hurt his right wrist slashing out and withdrew after 18. PGA champion Davis Love III, still nursing a tender back, opened with a disappointing eight-over 78 and followed with a 75.