June 25, 2007

Small Wonder

Long par 3s and mammoth par 5s got the attention, but it was the short par-4 17th that decided the championship

Just 306 yards Sunday, the par-4 17th cost Furyk (walking up the left rough) and others dearly.

Just 306 yards Sunday, the par-4 17th cost Furyk (walking up the left rough) and others dearly.

When Mike Davis was setting up the 17th hole for last week's U.S. Open, there was some discussion about putting grandstands behind the green. But from the tee, Davis wanted a clean view of the target waving atop the hill, above the fescue. "The flagstick is right up in the sky, and I love it there," Davis said Sunday night at Oakmont CC. "I purposely did that. I said I didn't want any backdrop. In fact, NBC wanted a tower back there. I said, 'No way.' "

It was part of the teaser, a way to create visual beauty to what became a pivotal hole in the final stages of a gripping drama. It also messed with depth perception—as if the combatants weren't dizzy enough after contending with the first 16 holes of Oakmont's beastly brutality. But instead of a birdie or eagle hole, the drivable, par-4 17th turned out to be a handful, one that tested the nerves and strategy of the contestants—and rewarded the audience with suspense. It had a bunker named "Big Mouth," a deep layer of what the USGA calls "risk-reward" rough (the notoriously nasty six-inch barbed wire from the P.J. Boatwright/Tom Meeks era) and a baked-out green Tiger Woods said "was the hardest on the course." For all the fuss over the 300-yard, par-3 eighth and nearly 700-yard par-5 12th, the 17th—a little uphill journey of 306 yards—turned out to be the hole that decided the tournament.

Sunday, an amped-up Jim Furyk hit driver pin-high and nearly couldn't get a club on his ball, wedging into more deep stuff before making bogey that cost him a playoff. Bubba Watson, the longest hitter on tour, had a chance to make eagle that would have tied the lead. He missed the green with his tee shot by barely 15 feet, but chunked his pitch and made bogey. Woods, one back with two holes to play, saved par after slinging a right-to-left 3-wood shot into Big Mouth, then "catching a rock" and failing to hold the green from the sand. Angel Cabrera, who plays a towering power cut, was so uncertain how to play the 17th, he laid up off the tee twice and still bogeyed it three of four days.

"That hole is a beauty," said Cabrera's caddie, Eddie Gardino. "If it weren't the U.S. Open, with normal rough, it would be an easy hole, but since it's the 71st hole of a major championship, and it's so narrow … no matter how you play it, it's a tough hole."

It wasn't so tough in last year's Oakmont CC club championship, when final-round combatants Malcolm Spatz and Jim Sullivan both drove the green from the tips and made eagles. And it wasn't so tough for Ben Hogan in 1953 or Jack Nicklaus in 1962—they both made birdie twice on their way to U.S. Open titles. (And, in case you were wondering, the 17th has been aced only once that anyone can remember: by former U.S. Amateur champ Vinny Giles in a club tournament two years ago.) But over the course of 72 holes in 2007, with new-age technology in the hands of stronger athletes, only two eagles were made at 17 the entire week—neither on Sunday, when the hole produced more bogeys (17) than birdies (13). For the week, the 17th played over par (4.066), proving the theory that distance is overrated compared to degree of difficulty.

"Today, when we mapped out the hole location, we decided to put it on the left side of the green, to entice them to go for it," said Davis. "Once we got the firmness readings, I specifically said to the water guy … make sure to put extra water on this one. I want anyone who could hit the green to have a chance to stop it. If they want to take it on, we want to reward them."

The problem was, nobody could hit the green. Woods made the proper play, but didn't turn his 3-wood enough and was caught in the jaws of the deepest bunker on the course. Furyk, No. 3 on tour this year in driving accuracy, hit it too far left into the jungle and needed a machete instead of a 60-degree wedge. Watson complained about the wait, went for the green with an iron and came up short. For the second time, Cabrera tried to lay up with 6-iron but couldn't hit the green with a wedge. Afterward, the only second-guess Davis would permit himself was not moving the tee even farther up, to the 296-yard plate, but he didn't want to have a par 3 (the 300-yard eighth) that measured longer than a par 4.

"What makes the hole so difficult is that regardless of what you do off the tee, it's a hard shot because the fairway's like this," he said, turning his hand to replicate the banked turn of a motor speedway. "We even widened it because there's so much slope to it."

Stephen Ames experienced that trying to find the fairway with a 4-iron. "Today I hit it up the middle, and it kicked dead left into the rough, 90 degrees, and I had no stance," Ames said. "What's so good about the hole is that it sits up on a hill, a plateau, and there's nothing behind it. There's no depth perception, so the risk-reward in going for it is actually less than if you laid up because it's a harder second shot. It's a great short hole."

Until Sunday the most famous victim of the 17th was Phil Rodgers, who opened the stage for Nicklaus and Arnold Palmer in 1962 by attempting to hit a ball from the branches of a tree, made quadruple-bogey 8 and ended up two shots out of the playoff. Furyk's number wasn't as high, but his place in history was just the same.

"You can say all you want in hindsight," said Furyk's caddie, Mike (Fluff) Cowan. "It just depends on what the player is feeling and what he feels like doing [at the time]. I think we made the right play. He was trying to knock it on the green." Saturday, Furyk didn't hit his drive as far, caught a better lie in the rough and made birdie. In time no one will remember that except Furyk and Cowan. Sunday, pumped up on adrenaline, the former Open champion put himself in position where he had no play, and it cost him the title.

"How it got as far as it did," Cowan said, "I'll never know."