Much has changed since the 2002 U.S. Open, but the storylines remain the same at Bethpage Black

Phil Mickelson finished second to Tiger Woods at the 2002 U.S. Open at Bethpage Black.
Simon Bruty/SI

FARMINGDALE, N.Y. - Things have changed since the 2002 U.S. Open at Bethpage Black, when George W. Bush's approval ratings were high and Champions Tour pro Scott Hoch tied for fifth with CBS announcer Nick Faldo.

But more, it seems, has stayed the same, as evidenced by a quick look at the main storylines of the 2009 Open heading into Thursday's opening round: Course difficulty, Tiger-and-Phil, and rain.

"This is the longest course I've ever seen, by far," said Mark Long, a caddie for more than 20 years on the PGA Tour. His boss, the diminutive senior player Fred Funk, has been unable to reach two of the par 4s in two shots during practice rounds.

 

"J.B. Holmes had 243 yards to the front on seven," Long said of Bethpage Black's beastly, 525-yard par 4. "All the guys are talking about it."

"And I hit a really good drive," Holmes said. "I was playing with Kenny Perry, and he's pretty long, and he's having to hit 3-wood into some of the par 4s."

At 7,426 yards, Bethpage is 212 yards longer than it was in 2002. It's actually not as long as Torrey Pines (7,643), host of last year's Open and the longest U.S. Open course in history, but rain has eliminated most if not all roll from tee shots, and players agree the Black is playing considerably longer.

"It's the longest golf course I've seen," Holmes said. "It's not going to get any longer, even if it rains, since we're already getting no roll at all."

Ah, the weather. The forecast for the week calls for rain every day, including thunderstorms on Sunday. Officials have nine so-called "Water Hogs" at the ready to soak up water and move it elsewhere, but already there's been enough rain to compromise the 18th hole.

"The area of most concern is the 18th fairway," said Jim Hyler of the USGA's championship committee. "It's built on a swamp, and it is a swamp. I guess that's the best way to say it. It does not drain very well. It's very, very wet."

Just as thunderstorms forced delays in 2002, including a 49-minute stoppage of play Sunday, they're likely to do so again in 2009. But Hyler said the USGA will under no circumstances allow players to lift, clean and place their balls. If weather makes the course unplayable and delays the tournament, he said, "We'll stay here until we get a champion."

Woods was the champion in 2002, and Mickelson was second, and they are the favorites again this year. They are No. 1 and No. 2 in the World Ranking and are both playing well coming into this week. Woods is trying to maintain his momentum from the Memorial, where he hit 14 of 14 fairways while shooting a final-round 65 to win.

"I've had some good practice rounds at home, and my practice rounds here this week have been really good," said Woods, who will be gunning for his 15th professional major championship victory, which would be just three shy of Jack Nicklaus's record total. "Really looking forward to getting out there and competing and playing."

Mickelson is aiming for his fourth major championship. While Woods has copped the U.S. Open trophy three times, Mickelson has only four runner-up finishes to show for his years of struggle in the year's second major. He is without his usual support system this week. He announced last month that his wife Amy is battling breast cancer, and she and the couple's three kids did not make the trip here.

Fans gave Mickelson an enthusiastic reception in '02, and the roars are likely to be even louder this time around. A Mickelson victory on Sunday would prove emotional even for the most hardened cynic.

"She's left me a number of little notes, texts, cards, hints, that she would like to have a silver trophy in her hospital room," Mickelson said of Amy. "So I'm going to try to accommodate that."

And so the question remains the same as it was in '02: Can anybody beat Tiger and Phil?

Sergio Garcia finished fourth here then. If he has a good putting week — a big "if" with the enigmatic Garcia — he could break through with his first major title.

Henrik Stenson, so impressive in his runaway victory at the Players last month, was in a chipper mood at his press conference Tuesday. He drew a laugh when he said of the Black's first-tee warning sign, which attempts to scare off novices, "It's more for the ski slopes, isn't it?" Then again, perhaps Padraig Harrington will be the spoiler. He's a virtuoso at bad-weather golf, having won the last two British Opens and a very British Open-like PGA Championship last summer. Harrington tied for 8th place here in 2002, but he hasn't been on form so far this year. On Wednesday afternoon, he calmly rolled putts on the practice green next to the first tee. The rain was on its way.

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