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Not So Rough Olympia Fields may have wowed the USGA, but for three days the players had their way with the defenseless layout

June 23, 2003
June 23, 2003

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June 23, 2003

Sports Illustrated Bonus Section: Golf Plus

Not So Rough Olympia Fields may have wowed the USGA, but for three days the players had their way with the defenseless layout

The exact moment that the 103rd United States Open officially went
wrong came on Thursday afternoon, in cool, overcast, utterly calm
conditions. Shortly after Brian Davis arrived at the 1st tee for
his noon tee time, all logic went out the window. Davis dropped a
nice little 71-yard sand wedge shot just beyond the flag on the
opening hole, and the ball backed into the cup for an eagle.

This is an article from the June 23, 2003 issue

Time out. Who...did what? That would be 28-year-old Brian
Davis, your 2000 Peugeot Open de Espana champion, who, on a
hunch, tried to qualify for the Open and survived a 61-man
shootout in Chicago. He's from Bishops Stortford, England, and as
anonymous as he might be, he backed in that third shot as easily
as you'd back a Buick into a barn. Backspin at the U.S. Open?
That should've caused a five-alarm bluecoat frenzy. Then Davis
birdied the 2nd hole. And the 3rd. And the 4th. Four holes into
his first Open, Davis was five under. After the eagle, Davis told
himself, "Well, welcome to the U.S. Open."

Wrong. Welcome to the Greater Milwaukee Open, or some other
slaphappy birdiefest, but what took place at Olympia Fields was
most certainly not a U.S. Open, at least not by normal standards.
The real Open has brutal rough, the kind where you can misplace
your ankles if you're not careful, not the casual kind that would
let Phil Mickelson miss 18 of 28 fairways and still shoot even
par in the first two rounds. The real Open has high scores and
more double bogeys than a YMCA outing, not Jim Furyk and Vijay
Singh leading at the halfway point at 133, a record. The real
Open is full of suffering, not Singh having such an easy time
shooting a record-tying 63 that he had no idea he was doing so
well until he missed a birdie try at the 17th hole and a
disappointed Rocco Mediate, his playing partner, lamented, "I
thought I was going to see a 61."

The real Open annually turns the world's finest players into a
frustrated, whining collection of divas. "This is by far the
fairest test of the U.S. Open I've been to," said Mickelson,
playing in his 13th national championship. "It's nothing like
Bethpage."

Yes, he said fair and U.S. Open in the same sentence. Call the
gumshoes at CSI. Obviously the real Open has been murdered. The
obituary was in Saturday's Chicago Tribune after record
scoring--26 players were in red numbers, and the cut of 143 was
the lowest in Open history--prompted this headline: OLYMPIA
YIELDS.

That's not what the USGA had in mind, nor did the members of
Olympia Fields, which waited 75 years to host a second Open. "The
members are dying," grounds chairman Terry Lavin said last
Saturday. "They're agonizing. People assumed this would be like
every other Open and scores would be high. One guy said he was
afraid the players were turning this into a Warwick Hills [site
of the Buick Open]."

That was prevented when the wind that made Chicago famous finally
started blowing midway through a sunny third round, firming the
greens and putting a few teeth back in designer Willie Park's old
course. The damage was already done, though, and those low
scores, combined with Olympia Fields' lack of spectacle, cast
doubt on the course's Open worthiness. There isn't a bad hole at
Olympia Fields, but neither is there a spectacular one. "The
course lacks the pizzazz of Pebble Beach and Shinnecock and some
others," says Mark Mungeam, the designer who touched up Olympia
Fields to make it Open-ready. "It's how the course plays, not how
it looks, that is the important factor. Olympia Fields isn't the
best course in Chicago, but it has the subtleties and nuances to
host an Open."

So who killed the Open? Well, Chicago has had a cold spring, so
cold that repeated fertilizer applications never kicked in to
thicken the rough, according to superintendent Dave Ward.
Temperatures dipped into the mid-30s on Sunday and Monday night
during Open week, then north winds off Lake Michigan chilled the
course all week, and that, combined with moisture from
early-morning fog, helped the greens--already softened by
rain--stay unusually receptive, a recipe for low scores. When the
north wind did kick in on Saturday, it was helping on the
451-yard 16th, the 247-yard 17th and the 460-yard 18th, three
potentially fearsome holes that became routine.

Tom Meeks, the USGA's man in charge of setting up the course, had
the rough trimmed to four inches on Tuesday, modest by Open
standards. It was not terribly formidable-looking, but perhaps
the memory of Bethpage Black last year, where the cut was 150 and
some players criticized the fairness of the setup, was still
fresh.

Did Meeks make a mistake? No, this may be a new kinder, gentler,
savvier USGA attitude. Meeks says that instead of sideways
chip-outs, he prefers that players use their skills and hit shots
toward the green with no way to spin the ball. He also defended
the course setup. "It's not that easy," he said. "Players don't
want to be in this rough." He added that a little favorable
weather--warmer, drier, windier--would have produced more typical
Open scores.

Does the club have another Open in its future? Chicago is the
nation's third-biggest media market, and Medinah, a three-time
Open host, has already committed to a PGA Championship (2006) and
a Ryder Cup (2012), making it unavailable for the near future.
Meanwhile, Cog Hill didn't impress during its 1997 tryout as U.S.
Amateur host. That leaves Olympia Fields as Chicago's new Open
house. The final results--19 players started the last round under
par, but only four ended that way--showed that, with a little
wind, this track can indeed play hardball. USGA bluecoats, who
according to a source close to the club indicated they'd like to
bring the Open back to Olympia Fields, gushed in their praise of
the club's handling of the championship and especially loved
staying in 33 remodeled guest rooms in the clubhouse. Reminder:
Never underestimate personal convenience.

If last week's Open wasn't as testing as usual, it was still a
test. "I'd probably have been on death row if the players
could've gotten me at Bethpage," says Meeks. "Five years ago I
had that pin location at Olympic's 18th that turned out to be a
nightmare. This year I've been a happy guy."

Happiness and fairness alive and well at Olympia Fields? Man,
that would never happen at the real Open.

COLOR PHOTO: PHOTOGRAPH BY SIMON BRUTY [INSIDE COVER] U.S. OPEN HIGH FLIER No One Could Touch Jim Furyk At Olympia Fields THRILLED Furyk matched the U.S. Open scoring record of 272.TWO COLOR PHOTOS: PHOTOGRAPHS BY FRED VUICH FANTASTIC Crowds turned out in droves to watch the game's best players mount an un-Openlike assault on Olympia Fields.COLOR PHOTO: AL TIELEMANS SEEING RED Saturday's leader board told the story: an uncharacteristically high number of players under par.
"The members are dying. One guy said he was afraid the players
were turning this into a Warwick Hills."