Those who thought Torrey Pines would be a bear probably weren't expecting a koala.
The 7,600-yard course -- groomed to U.S. Open specifications of tight fairways and exacting rough -- was supposed to keep all but the longest hitters off the leaderboard. But a strange thing happened on the way to the gallows. The players realized the course was fair and maybe -- shhhhhh! -- easy, by the USGA's sadistic standards.
"After the practice rounds, some of the players were saying, 'I wonder when they'll take the cover off and show us the real Open course,'" said Golf Magazine Top 100 Teacher David Phillips. "They were expecting the worst of the worst, and they felt it was pretty tame. You're seeing a lot of guys hit 3-woods off the tee."
Phillips teaches at the Titleist High Performance Lab in nearby Oceanside, Calif., and has played the Torrey Pines South Course about a dozen times. He walked the course Tuesday with Padraig Harrington, who told Phillips he felt the course was fair.
The players can expect it to stay fair, if not easy. (This is still
a U.S. Open, and Johnny Miller's record 63 at Oakmont is safe.) The
forecast for the weekend is the same as Thursday and Friday, which is
to say perfect, cool in the morning with low clouds and mostly sunny in
the afternoon with high temps in the 70s and 8-10 mph winds off the
ocean, according to Stan Wasowski, forecaster for the National Weather
Service in San Diego.
"This time of year is like our fall," Wasowski said. "You have
temperatures of 100-plus east of us in the desert, but the water
temperature is in the mid-60s. The hot air rises in the desert and the
cool air from the ocean moves across us toward the desert. This
sea-breeze cell means we have little variation in temperature this time
The comfortable weather is the main difference Phillips sees at Torrey
Pines compared to traditional Open tracks like Winged Foot and Oakmont.
"When courses are held at those places, the players expect the rough
will be thick and the weather will be oppressive," Phillips said.
With the weather not being much of a factor and the fairways being
hittable (this is a public course, after all), Phillips said the greens
are the main protection the course has. The key to this tournament, Phillips said,
will be which guys will control their iron distances the best to keep
the ball on Torrey Pines' hard, fast greens. You saw that Friday
morning with guys like Harrington and Sergio Garcia posting much better
scores now that they've adjusted to the course and started controlling
their distances better, Phillips said.
"Tiger and Phil have a big advantage here because they know the course
and have had so much success--they've won eight of the last 10 events
here," Phillips said. "Phil is probably in better position because of
Tiger's injury, but Tiger has shocked everyone before."
Phillips said other players who warrant watching are Luke Donald ("a
great iron player"), Robert Karlsson ("he's been hot on the Euro
Tour"), and the surprising alternate Rickie Fowler, the 19-year-old
Californian who shot one under Thursday morning.
"Rickie's a great kid from a great family and he's not afraid to go
low," Phillips said of Fowler. "If he gets a couple birdies, he keeps
firing away. It would be great for golf to have a 19-year-old make a
run in a U.S. Open."
The mild weather also gives the USGA a lot of options when setting up
the course for Saturday, Phillips said. They can make No. 14 a drivable
par 4 (moving it from 435 yards down to 277), and they can keep the
par-5 13th and 18th holes reachable in two. Without getting too
conspiratorial about it, Phillips said the USGA officials could set up
the course to favor certain players (Tig-ahem and Mickel-cough-cough)
if they want to have a dramatic final round.
"It's pretty neat," Phillips said. "A lot of people never considered
Torrey Pines as a U.S. Open course, but it gives them a lot of options."