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Hawk's Nest: Top 5 U.S. Open venues

Shinnecock Hills
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Some of the best memories during my 14 years at Golf World originated during our coverage of the major championships. Five or six of us would live in a rented house for the week, which required some personal adjustments, especially at the British Open. I slept on some kid’s waterbed for 10 years at the Masters. By the time I’d figure out how to use the coffee machine anywhere, the tournament would be over.

So I’m no genius and I’m definitely not a handyman, but as my longtime colleague, Bob Verdi, once cracked, “Scotland will be a great country when it’s finished.” When you fly a half-dozen writers overseas and put them in someone’s home with no adult supervision, stuff happens. Rental cars get banged up, guys eventually start wearing each other out, but 90 percent of the time, those experiences were an absolute blast.

Having spent about one-third of my career rotting away in hotels, even the big house we had for the 2004 U.S. Open – the one that came without any sheets or towels – was kind of fun. Especially now that it’s in the rear-view mirror.

AS FOR THE reason we gathered on Long Island that week, Shinnecock Hills was a staggering example of how a great venue can be taken to undue extremes when the USGA loses sight of its mission. The same thing happened a year later at Pinehurst, which was the last time a U.S. Open course setup was overseen by Tom Meeks.

My take was that Meeks was a nice guy who got in a little over his head – especially when dealing with pressure from longtime bluecoats and other high-ranking USGA officials. The tournament has been a lot more consistent under Mike Davis, who is now the executive director. Davis was an outstanding junior golfer who seems in touch with the tough-but-fair premise as it relates to the world’s best players.

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In May 2008, Davis was kind enough to let me play three rounds at Torrey Pines a month before it hosted the event. The rough was beyond diabolical – we failed to find my ball after drives at the ninth and 18th settled just a yard or two off the fairway. I’m not going to tell you Davis cut the rough because of those two shots, but it definitely was less penal when the big boys got to town.

Consider that a long-winded introduction to my list of the best U.S. Open venues – some of which were set up well, some of which were not:

1. Shinnecock (pictured above). Having played it for the fifth time last summer, I think it’s the finest course in America, period. Spectacular terrain, a relatively simple but brilliant design – and relentless in terms of making skill requisite. Shinnecock’s tilted greens are susceptible to situations like ’04, when the surfaces received no water and several eventually became unputtable, particularly the par-3 seventh.

“It was absolutely perfect on Wednesday,” Ernie Els chagrined. “Such a shame, how they let it get away.”

2. Oakmont. Looking back, Davis told me he wished he’d trimmed the rough a bit in ’07, when Angel Cabrera beat Tiger Woods and Jim Furyk. Veteran tour pro John Cook had a more fascinating idea, however, saying, “If you turned the entire place into one giant fairway, cut down all the rough and let the ball roll into some crazy places, you’d have the coolest tournament ever.”

You’ve gotta love a thinker. Oakmont was built on a seemingly endless stretch of tilted earth, right at the intersection of Common Sense and Gravity. Its reputation as the home of golf’s slickest greens might have something to do with the USGA playing it safe in 1994, then again in ’07. If you’re looking to reward precision amid the perdition, this is the spot.

3. Pebble Beach. Maybe I’ve ranked it a bit too high, but aesthetics have to count for something, and besides, the small greens make for tough targets even when you’ve driven it nicely. Pebble’s entire back nine is vastly underrated – the postcard holes get all the love. Davis let the 13th green get a little silly in 2010, a mistake he admitted, but it’s not his fault that tournament drowned in boredom.

4. Pinehurst. Its debut in 1999 remains the best U.S. Open I’ve covered: Payne Stewart over Phil Mickelson at the buzzer after Tiger Woods and Vijay Singh faded late. An all-star cast and a spectacular finish is hard to beat – unseasonably cool temperatures and clouds/rain allowed the No. 2 course to remain navigable. The return six years later was a mess by Sunday; neither guy in the final group (Olin Browne, Retief Goosen) failed to break 80.

This is another site where we don’t need a bunch of USGA chefs over the broth. Pinehurst’s domed greens were designed for speeds much slower than are played today. The meaty par 4s and exquisite bunkering are among the many wonderful characteristics, but if you want to turn the place into a bogey farm, you’re missing the point.

5. Bethpage. Both U.S. Opens there (2002, ’09) were basically ruined by rain, which hurt the atmosphere and removed the fangs from the vaunted Black course. Again, this is unbelievable golf terrain, so stacked in vivid contours that all you have to do is grow a little grass on the sides and let the tour pros have at it.

Meeks made mistakes with the tees in ’02, particularly at the 10th, where some guys couldn’t carry it over the fescue in the downpour. Last year’s FedEx Cup playoff event offered a pretty good example of how good Bethpage can be. This place deserves another shot.

IT WAS A weak field and he finished two strokes behind first-time winner Harris English, but there was a lot to like about Phil Mickelson’s body of work at the Fedex St. Jude Classic. For much of the weekend, Lefty struck his irons better than I’ve seen in a long time. He made enough putts to stay in the hunt and drove the ball adequately, all things considered.

More than all that stuff, Mickelson exhibited a level of competitive energy not always prevalent in recent months. You can do worse than to head to a U.S. Open with a bucket full of enthusiasm. Especially when you’ve finished second five times.

I’VE NEVER BEEN much of a weatherman when it comes to forecasting golf tournaments, but this week, I feel like an Irish meteorologist. Total guesswork on a venue that will host its first U.S. Open in 32 years – you’d be better off entering a raffle.

Tiger Woods (10-1): Forget the nine-hole 44 at Memorial. Ancient history. Still the best grinder on earth.

Matt Kuchar (15-1): Great mix of course-management skills and composure. Most likely to hang around deep into Sunday.

Luke Donald (18-1): Hasn’t missed a cut in eight U.S. starts, has two top-fives. Out of the spotlight, might he finally be ready?

Steve Stricker (22-1): Another majorless guy who makes putts and has amassed a nice portfolio. What does that mean this week? Maybe nothing.

Phil Mickelson (24-1): When mentally engaged, he’s still a handful. Short game always travels to the national championship.

Justin Rose (25-1): I expected more at this point in the season, but he’s going to win a major someday. Great iron players will prosper on small greens.

Boo Weekley (25-1): I worry about him standing over a 4-footer with the game on the line, but it almost certainly will be for a birdie.

Lee Westwood (28-1): Recently turned 40, time is running out, but couldn’t we have said the same of Darren Clarke?

Dustin Johnson (30-1): You never know with this guy. Course may not suit him, but T-10 in Memphis doesn’t hurt chances.

Rory McIlroy (35-1): Just haven’t seen it this year. Between the tennis-playing girlfriend and the new clubs, he’s looked like any other 24-year-old.