Even Short Holes Offer Scary Possibilities

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U.S. OpenMAMARONECK, N.Y. -- The par-4 sixth hole is downhill, only 321 yards, practically begging one of these big-hitting pros to take out a driver and whack it onto the green.
 
One catch: This is the U.S. Open. Anyone who misses is going to be in deep trouble ... and even deeper rough.
 
'I've found over time that I have a lot better chance of making birdie from 100 yards out than from chipping out of that rough around the green,' defending champion Michael Campbell said Monday after his practice round. 'You get in there and you don't have any idea what's going to happen.'
 
Campbell said he spent enough time in the rough -- calculated by some players as ranging from 5 to 10 inches in height -- to get a good feel for how ugly it could get. His worst lie? 'I think I advanced the ball about 30 yards,' he said.
 
He could laugh about it after the practice round. Come Thursday, it won't be so funny.
 
That's why the USGA calls its signature tournament -- quite proudly -- 'the most rigorous examination of golfers.' This year, the USGA powers have trotted out the phrase 'graduated rough,' for the grass that grows higher the farther away it is from the fairway. The idea: Don't make the penalty for missing the fairway by 2 yards the same as for missing it by 20.
 
While Campbell made his way in and out of Winged Foot pretty much unnoticed, Monday also was the day Tiger Woods returned to the course. Woods made his first appearance at a golf tournament since the final round of the Masters. The layoff came because of the illness and death of his father, Earl Woods.
 
Tiger showed up about a half-hour late for his 1:14 p.m. tee time, but as soon as he came through the gates, fans turned around and ran to the ropes, hoping for autographs. He hurried past them, to the first tee, where he played nine holes and didn't show any signs of rust.
 
'He was playing as you would expect,' said Jeff Sluman, who joined him for the practice round. 'There's no rust in his game. If he drives it straight, he'll win the golf tournament. And if doesn't, he'll have a hell of a chance to win. But that's nothing that hasn't already been said.'
 
The return of Woods means the resumption of the Woods-Phil Mickelson battles. They are winners of four of the last five majors. Mickelson has won the last two and, for the first time in recent memory, he has supplanted -- or come very close to supplanting -- Woods as the favorite at a major. One betting site listed Woods as an 11-to-2 favorite, followed very closely by Mickelson at 6-to-1.
 
Of course, the brutal conditions that often accompany the U.S. Open can bring forth surprises, too. Last year, Campbell fit precisely in that category, rising from four shots off the lead after three rounds to beat Woods by two for the championship.
 
Struggling on the European Tour so far this season, Campbell said he feels good nonetheless.
 
'It's the same,' Campbell said when asked what he felt his chances were compared to 2005. 'Last year, I thought I was hitting the ball pretty well and giving myself chances. I feel the same this year.'
 
It figures that those who can keep the ball in the middle of the tight fairways will have the best chance. There will be no rewards for huge hitters who can't hit it straight. The sixth hole is a great example.
 
Early in the practice rounds, a couple players -- Olin Browne and Angel Cabrera -- took driver and swung away. But with the pin tucked behind a bunker on the upper right, and with the left side of the green contoured for the ball to roll off, only a precisely hit driver -- one that would fly 300 yards, then stop on a dime -- would yield a chance at eagle.
 
'There's no real reward in going for it,' Campbell said.
 
Instead, it would be much safer to hit iron into a fairway that measures a meager 20 paces across and avoid rough that will be grown longer than on most holes to put a higher price on risk-taking.
 
'Certainly, the course is very challenging,' said Andy Svoboda, a 26-year-old qualifier who has won four club championships at Winged Foot and knows the A.W. Tillinghast layout better than anyone playing this week.
 
This Tillinghast design features severely sloping greens that run from back to front with little margin for error.
 
At the 1974 Open, dubbed 'The Massacre at Winged Foot,' Jack Nicklaus lined up his first putt at the back of the green and rolled it completely off the front, a harbinger for a tournament that Hale Irwin won at 7-over par. Fast-forward to Monday's practice, and there was Swede Henrik Stenson delicately landing flop shot after flop shot on the tight back shelf on No. 18, only to watch all the balls roll 30 feet downhill.
 
Scary? You bet.
 
'You just really have to be patient out there and hit quality golf shots,' said Svoboda, who has a keener sense than anyone for what's in store. 'You play one shot at a time and just add them up at the end. That's all you can do.'
 
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