June 14, 2009

Wide Open (Or Not)

With longer holes but wider fairways, Bethpage Black this time around may play even more into the hands of big hitters

At 525 yards, Bethpage Black's seventh hole will be the longest par four in U.S. Open history.

At 525 yards, Bethpage Black's seventh hole will be the longest par four in U.S. Open history.

FARMINGDALE, N.Y. -- It's thick, it's got more layers than a wedding cake and it's harder to get out of than rush hour on the nearby Long Island Expressway. But the man who is responsible for the rough at Bethpage Black for the 109th U.S. Open says there's something else noteworthy about the grass right there when you miss the fairway.

"It's perfect right now," said Mike Davis, the USGA's senior director of rules and competitions. "It's basically just how we want it. Every ball sits down just a little bit, which means that distance control and the ability to spin the ball is lessened."

So there's your pep talk. In other words, better hit it straight or you're going to see some crooked numbers.

The numbers at Bethpage Black tell a story all right, and it's all about length, and we're not just talking about the rough. The 7,426-yard layout -- the second-longest in U.S. Open history -- features three par fours that are more than 500 yards and three of the longest par four holes in the history of the U.S. Open. Get used to them: the 525-yard 7th (the longest par four ever played in the Open), the 508-yard 10th and the 504-yard 12th.

But it is the graduated rough that is likely to attract just as much attention as those long par fours. The farther a player misses the fairway, the worse the rough. The first six feet of intermediate rough is only 1 ¾ inches; the next 20 feet of the first cut of primary rough is 2 ½-3 inches. But the second cut of primary rough will be 4 to 6 inches deep.

"The penalty fits the crime," Davis said.

Just so everyone doesn't become fixated on the rough, Davis has opened up the fairways a bit. They're all wider by an average of 29 yards over how they were shaped for the 2002 Open. In fact, the fairway at the daunting seventh hole is more than doubled in width from 2002, from 24 yards wide to 50 yards wide.

"This is definitely a wider Bethpage and it'll be a wider Open than in 2002," Davis said.

Players may also get a break because forward teeing grounds will be used on about half the holes on any given day, Davis said. The seventh may be one of them. Davis said the 2002 teeing area at the seventh is probably going to be used in two rounds, which would shorten the hole to about 489 yards.

The fairway at the 10th, which some players failed to reach in 2002, has been brought about 75 yards closer to the tee.

Said Davis: "Reaching that fairway will be a non-issue."

Rain last week softened the course and any recurrence is going to keep it soft. If any certain style of player would have an advantage, Davis said he has an idea of what qualities could pay off at Bethpage.

"My gut reaction, on paper, it just has to favor the longer hitter who can bring in shots soft to the green," he said. "It's an 'aerial' golf course. There aren't many greens you can bounce the ball into. You have to fly the ball. So it's going to help to be able to hit it long and high, and making it come down soft has an advantage.

Like who?

"Players like Tiger and Phil and Bubba Watson and J.B. Holmes," he said.

The test starts Thursday.