Every year the USGA sets up a course for the U.S. Open that's as unforgiving as last year's bathing suit. The course is designed to test the players, not showcase them, and as the USGA proved last Friday at Bethpage Black, there is no grading on a curve. The inch of rain that fell on the course during the second round turned the rough into a club-grabbing jungle, while the cool, clammy air swatted down more shots than Shaq ever will. The USGA's stance: Play away, please. Tom Meeks, the senior director for rules and competitions, is the official who determined the positions of the tees and the pins. Asked on Friday night if he considered easing the setup because of the weather, he said, "We've never done that. I hope we never do."
The dilemma, however, is that just as the USGA pushes the players to the limit, it pushes the fairness of the course to its limit too. When the weather turns as nasty as it was on Friday in Farmingdale, N.Y., an Open venue finds its tipping point. The result: The world's best golfers are reduced to hacks. Twenty-nine players in the field of 155 failed to break 80 in the second round. The average score was 76.48, the sixth highest in any major since 1990. Only four golfers finished in the 60s: Shigeki Maruyama, whose low round of 67 included an ace at the 161-yard 14th, Padraig Harrington (68), Tiger Woods (68) and John Maginnes (69).
It's no coincidence that two of the highest-scoring days in recent Open history were played in dreadful weather. The opening round of the '86 Open at Shinnecock Hills (77.81) was played in a northeaster, and during the final round of the '92 Open, Pebble Beach (77.27) was buffeted by 40-mph winds. Veterans who had endured one or both of those rounds dismissed them in comparison to what they endured at Bethpage. "The conditions at Shinnecock were comparable, but this course is harder," said Tom Lehman, who shot a 76 and came in three strokes under the 36-hole cut of 150 (the highest since '86). Others weren't so sanguine. "Come hell or high water, that's how the USGA was going to set it up," said Hal Sutton, "and that's what came." Sutton, who tied for fourth at Shinnecock, shot a 77-77-154 at Bethpage and called the setup the worst job the USGA had ever done.
At 7,214 yards the Black was already the longest course in Open history. The two longest par-4s, the 492-yard 10th and the 499-yard 12th, drew the most criticism because of the forced carries required off the tee: 248 yards at the 10th, 264 yards at the 12th. In the 90� heat of the practice rounds, driving the ball that far wasn't a problem. Early in the week most players hit a three-wood off the 10th tee. In the dank, 58� air on Friday, the 10th fairway may as well have been in Manhattan. As Dudley Hart and his playing partners, Steve Pate and Paul Stankowski, left the 10th tee on Friday afternoon, having failed to reach the short grass, Pate asked a marshal if anybody had reached the fairway. "Not in the previous four groups," the marshal replied, "and you're the fifth." Pate's drive of 236 yards landed well short. He said he aimed for the seven-foot-wide walkway mowed through the fescue that stretched from the tee to the fairway.
Scott Verplank, who shot a 78 on Friday, said that when he saw the height and thickness of the fescue that swallowed up his 226-yard drive on number 10, "I thought about declaring an unplayable lie, going back to the tee and hitting another ball. I could keep hitting it there and going back for an hour and a half. I was never going to get it over the high stuff. The USGA did a poor job. Obviously they didn't watch the Weather Channel."
When the day ended, number 12 was the third most difficult fairway to hit (51.6%) and number 10 the fifth (53.5%). What galled the players at each hole was the lack of a second option to the forced carry. At number 12, a dogleg left, a bunker spanned nearly the width of the fairway. A landing area to the right of the bunker about eight yards wide served as a bailout. "The option they leave you is to hit a three-iron short of the bunker and play it like a par-5," said Olin Browne, who shot an 81 and missed the cut.
The weather strained the resources of the tournament staff. The USGA began the day with approximately 600 towels, and the caddies snatched them up as if they were free sandwiches. The supply ran "dangerously low," according to Jeff Poplarski, the chairman of the caddie committee. Police wouldn't allow delivery trucks on the grounds during the day for security reasons, so volunteers shuttled cars full of wet, muddy towels to a local laundry and rushed back with clean ones. Though many in the gallery of 42,500 left the course early, those who stayed made a beeline for the merchandise tent. A thousand $10 rain ponchos went out the door in the first half hour. For the day the USGA sold about 2,700 umbrellas (priced at $29 or $52), including a shipment of 600 that was hustled to the site.
If only the USGA staff on the course had adjusted as well. Meeks is an unassuming man with stooped shoulders and a slight Midwestern twang. His approachability camouflages his conviction that the USGA is always right and that the players need to suck it up. When he was told on Friday that only 11 players hit the green in regulation at number 7, a par-5 converted into a 489-yard par-4, Meeks expressed surprise at the statistic, but it didn't change his mind. "If none of them had reached the green in two," he said, "it wouldn't tell me that the hole is not fair. It tells me that it's hard." Phil Tataurangi hit driver-driver to the 7th green and sank a 25-foot putt, one of two birdies the hole yielded all day. "It's unfair," Tataurangi said later, "but there is one guy who didn't have a problem with the course. That's the USGA's argument."
The one guy Tataurangi had in mind wasn't Maginnes, who birdied 16, 17 and 18 to finish under par. Sergio Garc�a's claim that the USGA would have suspended play in the afternoon had Woods been on the course bordered on paranoia, but he was not alone in believing that the USGA tailors its decisions to Tiger's measurements, especially in the setup of a course. "The USGA made it playable for one guy," Verplank said, "and he's a freak of nature." Added Jeff Sluman, who shot 73 on Friday, "Today the USGA determined that the man who can carry it the farthest, not hit it the straightest, will benefit." Meeks dismissed the distinction between distance and carry. "I rest my case in saying that everybody in this field can hit a ball 250 yards."
Meeks allowed that "we might bring the fairway back closer to the tee" on number 10 when the Open returns to Bethpage. By then it will be too late for such players as John Cook, 44. As he cleaned out his locker after his 74-77-151, Cook questioned the USGA's motives. "They could have moved up the tees 10 yards at number 12," he said, "but then they wouldn't have had the longest par-4 in Open history. It was an ego thing."