SAN DIEGO – And now it all comes down to the greens.
Fast, firm, bumpy and beguiling, the putting surfaces at Torrey Pines Golf Course will likely have the final say in determining who wins the 108th U.S. Open. When the 80 players who made the cut on Torrey South renew their pitched battle with the longest Open course in history, they’ll have to make peace with the unpredictable poa annua putting surfaces.
“The greens are going to be the biggest factor by far,” predicted Patrick Sheehan, who is among 33 players within six shots of leader Stuart Appleby heading into the third round Saturday. “They are not going to get softer and they won’t be smoother. They’re going to dictate how it goes.”
Added 2003 U.S. Open champion Jim Furyk: “They’ve protected us from this golf course a lot. They really can’t do too much more about the rest of the setup, but they can certainly control the score through the greens, if they want to. How firm they are, where they put the pins, how fast they are … yeah, I would say the greens are the deal.”
When Rees Jones renovated the South Course in 2001, much of the focus was on the lengthening of the layout to 7,643 yards. But Jones was especially proud of his new green complexes, which included more tiers and ridges, as well as pockets for additional hole locations. But equally making an impact has been the change in the surfaces from bent to poa annua, which get bumpier as the hours progress.
Many players the first two days became frustrated watching their putts meander toward their intended target. Others shrugged. Steve Stricker could only laugh watching an eagle putt on the home hole zigzag down a slope and past the hole.
“Jim (Furyk) asked me if the ball ever actually touched the ground it bounced so much,” Stricker said.
Many players complained about the quality of the greens, but that’s simply part of the U.S. Open test. “It’s tricky, but you have to pick your spots and manage your game,” Robert Allenby said.
Championship Committee chairman Jim Hyler said the greens would undoubtedly be a factor, but not the sole indicator for who will be successful over the last 36 holes. “It’s still the whole golf course, keeping it in the fairway, hitting greens, making a few putts. This setup allows players to show off all their skills.”
Nevertheless, putting tends to get magnified under tough conditions. “It’s not easy to make putts, where they put the pins, the speed,” Sergio Garcia said. “They have made the golf course very fair, so the difference is getting the ball in the hole.”
“You can change the score so much where you put the tees and the pins,” added 2006 U.S. Open champion Geoff Ogilvy. “If you have all the par‑5s back, you have a third on the back tee, and you tuck the pins, under par is a phenomenal score. But if you put some tees like yesterday and have some pins in the balls, and all of a sudden there seemed to be quite a few birdies out there yesterday. So the setup man has complete say over what we shoot, I think.”
Not entirely. John Rollins, who shot a morning 3-under 68 Friday, pointed out that it was not easy to fire at any flagsticks, reducing most players to trying to hole 18-20 footers. “It’s kind of hard to score that way on greens like this,” he said.
Then along came Tiger Woods in the afternoon with a 68 achieved largely through draining a series of mid-length putts. Miguel Angel Jimenez fired a 66, the best round of the tournament, a few groups behind.
Hyler said the hole locations for all days, including a potential Monday playoff, were established before the tournament. So also were the desired firmness and speed. He said Saturday’s conditions shouldn’t deviate dramatically from that of the first two rounds.
“Good scores are still going to be possible if someone plays well,” he said.
He mentioned players who put their tee shots in the fairways and avoiding the long Kikuyugrass rough.
But then they still have to deal with the greens.
“Pin locations would be one of the biggest factors,” Appleby said, looking ahead. “I don't think they're going to do anything else to the course but pin positions, making them a little bit more difficult to find is going to take away maybe one or two birdies out of the guys playing well. You imagine what it's taking out of the guys who maybe back further.”
The players who make a move Saturday might not have the fewest putts, but they will execute well on what would be considered important putts, be they par saves, birdies, lags or even the odd tricky tap-in where they could easily fall asleep – as Adam Scott did in missing an 8-incher Friday.
Equally important will be how players handle possible disappointment on the putting surfaces. “That’s part of the patience,” Allenby said.
It’s a big part of any U.S. Open.