A Kinder Gentler US Open

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PINEHURST, N.C. -- A hot breeze roiled across the 18th fairway, rustling the pine trees and slowly pushing the dense, white clouds toward the South. Up ahead, the closely mowed fringe around the humpbacked green was a bit chewed up, the result of a cooler-than-usual Carolina spring.
 
The greens? They were still green. But it was only Monday. The forecast for the next two days called for highs reaching into the 90s.
 
The U.S. Open begins Thursday, but as soon as the players arrived at Pinehurst No. 2, set in the picturesque village in the Sandhills region of North Carolina, the debate had begun.
 
The USGA prides in making its tournament the toughest test in golf'the one that seeks to identify the best players'but after an embarrassing Sunday last year at Shinnecock Hills, the USGA had to temper its draconian standards.
 
Will anybody notice the changes?
 
They always try to make sure the golf courses are on the edge and this golf course will be no different, said Nick Price, a staunch critic of the USGA in previous years.
 
Price, whose three majors dont include a U.S. Open title, was given a special exemption into this years tournament and, several weeks ago, was issued a rare invitation to play the Donald Ross course and offer his input.
 
It was an attempt by the USGA to reach out to its critics, and part of a bigger effort to recalibrate its image after last years disaster at Shinnecock, when on a hot, windy final day, not a single player broke par and 28 players, including Ernie Els, failed to break 80. In the biggest debacle of the day, the par-3 seventh green got so dry, it couldnt hold a tee shot, and early on, officials started watering the turf for every other group.
 
Retief Goosen won the tournament with a 1-over 71 on Sunday. He and Phil Mickelson were the only two players to break par over four rounds.
 
They have the defense because hes such a great champion, Fred Funk said. Thats fine. But it takes a guy with the mentality of Retief. Nothing bothers him. Youve just got to expect the unexpected, expect unfair, expect bad bounces. Expect having to make 6-, 7-, 8-footers for par.
 
So concerned with last years troubles was the USGA that it recently published a 420-word manifesto titled USGA Philosophy, an essay about the way it sets up U.S. Open courses.
 
The essay held to its belief that the U.S. Open must prove the most rigorous examination of golfers.
 
'At the same time, we try to ensure that a well-played stroke produces a positive result for an Open competitor, it read.
 
A loosening of standards? After playing his first practice round of the week, 1995 U.S. Open champion Corey Pavin thought not.
 
Its set up very nicely, Pavin said. Its going to be a difficult U.S. Open.
 
The USGA essay says there is no target score for a U.S. Open, dismissing the widely held belief that many in the organization consider the tournament to have been less than a success if the winner breaks par.
 
Nevertheless, the players know they can only succeed if they change their mind-set for this tournament.
 
You have to put your mind in neutral, Price said. You have to say, Hey, whatever happens today or the next three days is going to happen and you just have to deal with it. Most players think if you play well, you should shoot 2 or 3 under par. You have to throw that out here.
 
Price, who a few years ago berated the USGAs Tom Meeks for making the fairway nearly impossible to reach on the 492-yard 10th hole at Bethpage Black, said despite his criticisms, the USGA has done a very nice job setting up Open courses over the past two decades.
 
At Bethpage, they did a great job except for three holes. They made a mess of three holes, he said.
 
While some of the USGAs problems'and successes'have been of its own making, some can be related to weather. Pinehurst was almost universally praised after the 1999 tournament, when Payne Stewart made his dramatic 15-foot putt on No. 18 to win it. Besides the great finish, it helped that much of the week was cool and moist.
 
Because the spring has been so cool, not all the rough has grown in as expected. Some players Monday were griping a bit about the patchy fringe around the greens.
 
Still, the rest of the course looks good.
 
After the really hot stuff Tuesday and Wednesday, temperatures are supposed to scoot back into the 80s with a chance of rain through most of the weekend. Thats about average for this time of the year down South. If so, it would allow the USGA to give the 156-player field the tough'and slightly refined'test it has been planning for.
 
Its hard for them, as well, Price said of the difficulties the ever-changing committee encounters at different venues with different weather. Its not the easiest job in the world setting up a U.S. Open golf course and getting it right.
 
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