June 3, 2008

Sea Change

Torrey Pines, a brawny muny by the Pacific, will bear little resemblance to its Buick Invitational self when the game's best come to town

Jones' 2001 redesign had its biggest effect on No. 4, where the green was moved 20 yards closer to the cliff next to the Pacific Ocean.

Jones' 2001 redesign had its biggest effect on No. 4, where the green was moved 20 yards closer to the cliff next to the Pacific Ocean.

Sixty years After southern California last hosted a U.S. Open, the Big Ballpark on the Pacific ticks to the beat of a rush hour on nearby Interstate 5. Both giant practice greens are cluttered with serious putters by 7:15 on a Saturday morning. Conversation is minimal, although it is even quieter on the deck behind the Torrey Pines clubhouse, a plain, rectangular structure that could easily be mistaken for a county library.

The line at the starter's window is seven or eight deep, and tee times don't grow on trees. A walk-up who arrived at 5 a.m. will be lucky to get out before 9, an uncertainty that can induce tension among those who came without a game. The guy behind the glass, meanwhile, enables no delusions of grandeur. For every hotshot, there is a have or a have-not.

"Dude, you can scratch Crawford off your list," a departing single announces in a voice for everyone to hear. "I just got on Del Mar CC." As the kid grabs his carry bag and hustles toward the parking lot, all eyes turn to the starter, who lip-syncs the offending line with enough over-the-top mockery to earn serious giggles from a tough crowd.

Welcome to Caddyshack at Ridgemont High. When a Louisiana kid named David Toms won the 15-17 division of the Junior World Championships at Torrey Pines in 1984, they would have laughed you off the grounds if you predicted a U.S. Open would be there in less than 25 years. "I played it for the first time when I qualified for the U.S. Junior back in '73," says Steve Roberts, a local attorney. "I'm thinking, 'It's a PGA Tour stop. This is gonna be fabulous,' then I get here, and it's in such dreadful shape that I honestly thought we'd gone to the wrong course."

When you spend most of your adult life working for a newspaper, as longtime golf writer T.R. Reinman did for the San Diego Union-Tribune, you learn how to wrap up a half-decade of history in three sentences. "The city is broke, [the courses] get pretty [beat up] in the summer, and who knows what will happen after the Open?" Reinman says. "The place went through hell for unfathomable reasons. It has been a muny, it is a muny, and we're hoping it will remain a cut above a muny when all this is done."

What is ironic is that the city of San Diego basically tried to turn Torrey Pines into a resort several years back, which resulted in a lengthy legal battle against the Torrey Pines Municipal Golf Club—an organization of about 1,000 area golfers—and what ultimately amounted to a failed coup after an out-of-court settlement in March 2007. The short version: After a renovation of the on-site lodge, the city attempted to reserve a significant block of preferential tee times for guests at the Hilton hotel next door.

Roberts, a TPMGC member and one of the best 4-handicaps in America, negotiated a compromise that guarantees club members 10 years of unimpeded access. "Everyone came to a middle ground," he says. "Both sides gave a little and both sides got something back." If the kindler, gentler North Course is best known as the South's little brother—it has played about four strokes easier in recent Buick Invitationals—it doesn't take a U.S. Open to fill up the tee sheets at either layout.

Getting on the South can be particularly tough. So is playing it. At a TPMGC tournament in February, 64 of the 120 participants competed off handicaps of 6 or lower. Three broke 80. "The rough was a joke [by] April," says past club president John Hoffman, a scratch whose 73 made him medalist that day. "One guy took a [penalty] drop, walked over to get his bag and never found his ball."

To those with an impartial eye and a wicked sense of humor, the South is the easiest 7,643-yard golf course you'll find. Compared to the dramatic terrain at Bethpage Black, the Long Island muny that will host next year's U.S. Open, Torrey Pines is optically unimposing, a parkland sprawl with just one real forced carry for the big fellas (13th tee) and one water hazard (18th green). Despite sitting atop a bluff overlooking the world's largest ocean, the layout is quite flat. Sometimes, meat and potatoes can be beautiful.

Nowhere on earth, however, will you find a more outrageous pulchritude-to-punishment ratio. San Diego born and San Diego bred, the South has been armed from head to toe with USGA dread: a mix of hearty grasses that likely will measure about 3½ inches and make life miserable for players who hit it more than 10 yards off-line. In early May, Hercules couldn't play a shot from the stuff unless he got a break with the lie.

Torrey Pines

A bad break? Never mind. You could hood a pitching wedge, play the ball off your back foot and take the club straight up as if you were chopping wood, only to drive your egg straight into the turf, at which point you might have to take a penalty drop, at which point you may gasp in pain as your ball sinks directly to the bottom of Kikuyu Sea. That's when you start questioning yourself about trying to play smart golf.

There's also the no-roll factor: A drive landing in one of the South's rain-free fairways might yield 30 yards of tumble. Fly it into the primary rough, however, and you had better keep your eye on it. Line it up with something in the distance as you walk off the tee, because where it hit is where it will be. And if you can't find it? "We tell people that if it goes in the four-inch stuff, and it would be inside the gallery ropes, drop a ball without penalty," says Torrey Pines starter Larry Barron, who has been playing here since 1958. "Get yourself a stack of wet towels and take a swing at it. That's what the rough is like."

Since Mike Davis took over for Tom Meeks as the USGA's senior director of rules and competitions in 2006, nobody has finished a U.S. Open better than five over par. A lot of people enjoy watching mass destruction, but Davis, an instantly likable man and a very good player, is also quite intelligent, and he seems bullish on the premise that rough never was intended to break a player's wrist or even his competitive spirit, but it should make par a chore.

"We saw too many guys trying to muscle it out," Davis says of last year's turmoil at Oakmont. "We don't want to err on the side of penal. Take away their distance and spin control, but leave them a shot." So what was five inches high in April at Torrey Pines was reduced to four in May, then by another half-inch a few weeks later.

In early 2003, about four months after Torrey Pines was awarded the '08 championship off the positive reverberations of Bethpage's successful debut, Tiger Woods won the second of his six Buick Invitational titles with a score of 16 under. Recalls Davis, "I got so many calls from people asking me, 'What are you going to do?' " It wasn't the pile of tour-pro 66s that bothered Davis at the time, but the condition of the course was still a serious concern.

Whine all you want about its rough, but when you finally get to the green, the USGA has very high standards, and the bent grass employed during Rees Jones' 2001 redesign was not up to snuff. Poor root structure and Poa annua invasions were part of the deal when the tour came to town every January, but if you can't get greens rolling in San Diego in mid June, you need to find a different surface or another place to play.

In the summer of 2006, Torrey Pines and USGA officials concurred. Instead of fighting the Poa annua, they would undergo a full conversion to it. The decision actually might not have saved this tournament, but it will make it better. "If you had asked me two years ago how confident I was in getting the greens to where we wanted them," Davis admits now, "I might not have been very confident."

From its never-a-dull-moment past to a better-than-ever future, Torrey Pines is finally ready for its close-up. In following Bethpage as only the second municipal facility to host the national championship, it also shares a distinction with Pebble Beach and Riviera CC in 1948: no other tour stop has doubled as a U.S. Open site in the same year. Whereas Bethpage (26th) and Pebble Beach (sixth) are staples in Golf Digest's ranking of America's 100 Greatest Golf Courses, Torrey South doesn't make the list.

For crying out loud, it doesn't even crack the top 30 in the state of California, but if this particular Bogeypalooza was about tradition or following the herd, Torrey Pines never would have been a candidate to end SoCal's six-decade U.S. Open drought. "Of all the [U.S. Open sites] we've redone, this one started with a dream," Jones says. "We started from scratch here."

With Congressional, Pinehurst and Bethpage among his credits as the "Open Doctor," Jones considers the work he did on Torrey South extensive enough to call it his design. Some locals clearly don't agree with Jones' claim to ownership, but you'll have a hard time finding anyone who doesn't think he did a superb job. "I think of a total redesign as a rerouting of holes, and you don't have any of that here," Hoffman says.

Torrey Pines

"It was a dump, but it had character," adds Roberts, who should know. He moved to the area in 1977 and spent three years living in a van on what is now the practice range. He worked as a lifeguard on the beach about a mile north of the course and played money games three times a week with a pretty impressive list of Torrey Pines graduates: Dennis Paulson, Mark Wiebe, Gary McCord and Greg Twiggs, all of whom played on the tour.

When the USGA staged its big tournament at Pebble Beach in 2000, the South underwent its first inspection as a possible U.S. Open venue, but the wheels didn't really start turning until Bethpage made its initial splash. The Black, however, was given its Open before Jones came in to do his thing. Not so with Torrey Pines. "We told them to go ahead and do it with the idea that they wanted to improve their facility," says Davis, which is a nice guy's way of saying there wouldn't be any commitment to a national championship until the course put on a shirt and tie.

The original design of both courses was done by William F. Bell in 1957. Roberts remembers a skimpy budget from the city and someone's bright idea to fill the bunkers with sand from the beach—it didn't take long for the accompanying saltwater to kill the greens. Speaking of which, Jones flattened and enlarged all 18 putting surfaces, reworked their access lines, added 60 bunkers and almost 600 yards. "Every green has an open entrance, a guarded entrance and an alternate route of attack," he says.

As for structural changes, the only significant alteration was at the par-4 fourth. "They had under-ultilized the canyons," adds Jones, who moved the green about 20 yards closer to the cliff. If the hole wasn't such a brute, or a putt toward the ocean so treacherous, you might pause at land's edge to marvel at the Pacific in all its glory. It's as close as you'll get to the coast—Torrey Pines is a poor man's Pebble Beach when it comes to spectacular vistas.

At the tour stop in late January, the South is very much an aerial ballpark, meaning those who fly the ball a long way have a distinct advantage over low-altitude hitters. Squishy fairways don't give up much roll, the greens are soft and slow, and if the winter weather is better here than anywhere else in the continental U.S., it is often cool and damp atop the rocky ledge. The climate and conditions obviously will be different next week, but still, it is hard to imagine the familiarity factor not helping guys who have been playing the South every year.

It is probably no coincidence that Woods and Mickelson, a couple of Southern California kids, have claimed eight of the last 10 Buick Invitationals. This is a course with enormous volume. As Hoffman points out, the final two rounds will run into the early evening out west, which gives the USGA a prime-time telecast in the eastern half of the country and may beckon a prevailing breeze that could make two of the course's hardest par 4s—the 461-yard seventh and 504-yard 12th—unreachable for some, even from the fairway.

Add a little USGA hay on the sides and you begin to understand why Mickelson predicted another apocalypse after a practice round on the South in April. After calling it "the hardest course in the world, 7,600 yards at sea level," Philly Mick offered a rather gloomy forecast on the winning score: "Even if it's soft, I don't [see] anything close to even par." This from a guy who mangled his wrist during a pre-championship visit to Oakmont last spring, a local boy who grew up 20 minutes from Torrey Pines and knows every blade of grass on the property.

Maybe that's why Davis already has reduced the rough twice since Mickelson went through the ringer. With no chance of rain, Davis points out, "you can basically dial in the firmness of the entire course." Those calls of concern after Woods slapped that 16 under on TP in '03? Let's just say there won't be many follow-ups.

And while there may not be anyone under par when it's all said and done, saying and doing are two different things. As with Woods, Mickelson might easily call Torrey Pines his public-course home. Their local knowledge and vast success here has to count for something. Both superstars are featured prominently among perhaps two-dozen framed photographs in the pro shop, all of past Junior World champions and other big-kid events played in the San Diego area.

Some of the photos date to the early 1970s. There's John Cook, age 17, with his stringy blond bangs and a nice trophy in his arms. There's Mickelson, 13 or 14 years old, standing six inches taller than any of the four beaten foes he's posing with—Mickelson's face hasn't changed a bit. And there's Tiger, just a tiny little fella in big eyeglasses, wearing a mangy cap and holding a trophy that's almost as big as he is. Every one of these guys has grown up. So has Torrey Pines.