The U.S. Open is designed to drive players crazy, but last
week's 98th edition was the malfunctioning car alarm of Opens.
There was the usual thick rough and fluffy sand, as well as
slopes severe enough to kick drives sideways and send putts back
to their starting point. What really got under the players'
skin, though, was the 17th hole. The uphill 468-yard par-4 was a
classic example of the heroic notions USGA officials have about
their ultimate championship, and the cruel mind games they play
with the golfers.
The hole set the concept of par on its ear. With a scoring
average of 4.718 strokes for the four days, the 17th played
almost as tough as the 533-yard par-5 1st hole (4.741). Despite
having no water hazards, out-of-bounds or fairway bunkers, the
17th was the hardest hole against par of any in the Open since
1982. The field hit the green in regulation only 21.9% of the
time, an unheard-of rate of futility. There were only nine
birdies all week. In comparison, the second-least-birdied hole
was the 4th, a 438-yard par-4, which yielded 26 subpar scores.
The carnage could have been worse. The players were fortunate
that the prevailing wind off the Pacific, which blows from green
to tee on 17, was never more than a breeze. That was not enough
to put them in a generous frame of mind when discussing the
hole. "The 17th is basically a way to get from the 16th green to
the 18th tee," Jack Nicklaus said disdainfully.
According to the tenets of golf course architecture, the 17th
simply doesn't work as a par-4. Because of the slope of the
fairway, the hole plays more in the neighborhood of 510 yards.
"If this hole is 468 yards," said Nick Price last week, "then I
want to buy some real estate from the USGA." Despite a new angle
from the tee, which meant the landing area was flatter than the
one used in the '87 Open, drives still kicked right when they
hit the fairway. For those lucky enough to stop their tee shots
in the short grass (and only 61.5% of the drives wound up
there), the remaining approach shot of more than 200 yards was
to a green that looked more remote than Alcatraz.
A significant number of players could barely reach the green,
and then only with a fairway wood. Corey Pavin would have needed
his best two shots to get there, and after straining and failing
on Friday, he made a triple-bogey 7 and missed the cut by a
stroke. For those who couldn't carry the ball all the way to the
putting surface, there was only a six-yard opening between two
deep bunkers, which came into play about 20 yards short of the
green. That was why Loren Roberts decided before the
championship that if there was any wind, he would lay up 70
yards short, which he did on Friday, getting up and down for par
to make the cut on the number, plus-7.
Those who could reach in two had to contend with the small,
crowned and severely left-to-right sloping green that was
designed for an approach shot played with a short iron. As the
green firmed up each afternoon, good shots bounced over it. In
the third round Lee Janzen hit a high, fading three-iron from
210 yards that landed in the middle of the green but ended up in
the rough. From there he made his second double bogey on the
hole in as many days. "Tomorrow I will cuss that hole out," said
Janzen on Saturday, "but I still have to play it once more." He
parred it on Sunday to finish the week five over on 17 and five
under on Olympic's other 17 holes.
Complaints were music to the ears of the USGA. The 17th
fulfilled one of its unwritten rules: that golfers must play a
do-or-die long-iron approach on one of the finishing holes at
the Open, a shot that the pros are rarely called upon to hit
anymore. Olympic has a cluster of such holes on the front nine
but, in its usual setup, none down the stretch.
The 17th was designed in 1928 by Sam Whiting as a 500-yard
par-5. For the '55 Open, tournament chairman Bob Roos had new
tees built on all 18 holes and lengthened the 17th to 522 yards.
But USGA executive director Joe Dey decided that he didn't want
players hitting short irons into the last three greens and
ordered that the 17th be played as a monster par-4 of 461 yards.
"I told Dey that meant about half the field wouldn't be able to
reach the green," says Roos, now 80. "He said he knew that but
didn't care, and what Dey said went." Only Sam Snead hit the
green with an iron that year. The hole played to an average of
4.923 strokes, by far the toughest hole of the week.
In 1966, when the hole was shortened to 443 yards, Arnold Palmer
lost the last stroke of his seven-shot lead on Sunday by missing
the 17th green and bogeying the hole. In '87 USGA vice president
Grant Spaeth decided that the 17th had played too long and
shortened it to 428 yards, but that put the landing area on a
slope so severe that even drives hooked into the hill wound up
in the right rough. "In retrospect, a big mistake," Spaeth says
today. When the Tour Championship was held at Olympic in 1993
and '94, the pros used the tee that Roos had built and 17 was
played as a par-5. The hole was the 11th hardest in '93 and the
second easiest in '94.
While conceding that the 17th is a three-shot hole
architecturally, Robert Sommers, author of The U.S. Open: Golf's
Ultimate Test, believes that the USGA is right to turn reachable
par-5s into killer par-4s. "Simply by changing par from 5 to 4
changes the attitude of the player," he says. "The number
ultimately may not matter because everyone plays the same hole,
but it's hard for the player to tell himself that."
Precisely. "The whole thing is a head game the USGA likes to
play with us," says Price. "If you let it bother you, it's
another way in which you've let the course beat you."
Even a 17-hater like Nicklaus agrees with the philosophy. "When
I was winning Opens, I used to love to hear a guy complaining,"
he says. "I thought, Well, that takes care of him. I used to
think, The tougher the better. In that sense 17 at Olympic
certainly fits what the Open is all about."