Friday, December 09, 2011

PEBBLE BEACH, Calif. — Tom Watson used a word you don't hear much at the U.S. Open after shooting a one-under 70 in the third round at Pebble Beach on Saturday.

Actually, he said it twice.

"They put the tee up at 4 today, which is a lot of fun," Watson said after getting back to six over for the tournament. "It's a lot of fun to go ahead and take a crack at that green."

Fun. Watson was talking about the fact that the USGA moved the tees up 40 paces on the hole to turn it into a 284-yard par-4, playing straight downwind.

He used driver to almost get there, then made a chip and a putt to get down in 3. Dustin Johnson hit the green with a long iron and made the putt for eagle. Davis Love III reached with 3-wood and also made eagle.

"It wasn't my game plan to go birdie, birdie, eagle," said Love, who shot three-under 68 to get to four over for the tournament.

Tiger Woods anticipated the new tee, and though he failed to reach the green, he did make his first birdie of the day on No. 4, the spark that ignited his 66.

Turning the fourth hole into a par 3.5 was only one of the USGA's bold changes for the third round.

The seventh hole was abbreviated to only 99 yards, the first time a U.S. Open hole has been in double digits. Players like Ian Poulter still had trouble holding the green.

The third tee was moved up 34 paces to tempt players to try to drive the area in front of the raised putting surface, leaving only a long pitch for their second shot. The bold play backfired on Woods, who flew the green with his second shot and bogeyed.

"It's all fluid out here, because you have to make adjustments," he said. "We were all surprised they moved the tee up on three. It's not a tee they said they were going to move the tee up on. We knew the tee was going to move up on 4 one of the days, but definitely not 3. And again, I haven't hit driver there all week, not one. But today it was, hey, you've got to hit driver down there now."

Finally, the tee markers on the 206-yard, par-3 17th hole were moved left, onto the tee of the neighboring fourth hole. This time Woods liked the change, and birdied the hole.

Different is good, the marketers and politicians say, but when did the staid old USGA become Russell Brand? The organization used to be Judge Smails. That hasn't been the case under wild-and-crazy guy Mike Davis, the 45-year-old former Pennsylvania junior state golf champion who is in his fifth year as senior director of rules and competitions.

"I'd say we've done a 180-degree turn in philosophy since the 2002 Open," Davis told me for a profile in Golf Magazine back in 2008. "We used to not want to be flexible in the teeing grounds we used, but now there's a concerted effort to give the players a different look every day. We want them out on the course having to think right then and there. They used to know from practice rounds exactly how everything was going to be."

Woods's surprise at the new tee on three said it all: Players are now on their back foot, dealing with a golf course that can be transformed literally overnight.

This year's biggest innovation was the decision, made in concert with Arnold Palmer Design, to move Pebble's fairways closer to the cliffs along the Pacific Ocean and shave any rough that might save off-line shots from bounding haplessly into oblivion.

Those changes kneecapped Phil Mickelson, who fought a losing battle with the cliffs of doom Saturday as he double-bogeyed the par-4 ninth hole.

Davis has broken new ground with his imaginative course setups, starting with the graduated-rough concept that began five years ago. Mickelson loves it. Woods loves it. Vijay Singh loves it, as does every other player for whom length off the tee is usually an advantage.

The driveable par-4 concept was a hit at the 2008 Open at Torrey Pines, as was the revelation of prime-time golf.

The leaders began late in the afternoon again at Pebble on Saturday, at 3:50 p.m., meaning they played the back nine through cocktail hour, ensuring a rowdy crowd.

Phil Mickelson, who was off at 3:30, joked about the unusually late tee times after his round Friday.

"It's weird because I thought Augusta was late at 3," he said. "I mean, 4 o'clock, I'm driving home, getting the kids ready for doing their homework, getting ready for bed."

But the USGA isn't about to let a little thing like that get in the way. Prime time means big ratings. Said Rand Jerris, the USGA's managing director of communications, "The intent is to get as many people watching as possible."

Thanks to the USGA's willingness to add wrinkles like the driveable fourth, there's more to watch. As Watson said, it's fun. Even at a U.S. Open, isn't that the point?

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