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Uncertainty swirls as U.S. Open begins
SOUTHAMPTON, N.Y. -- The final practice round for the U.S. Open brought a breeze Tiger Woods had not experienced from that direction. Standing on the 14th tee Wednesday morning, he gazed down the fairway and said to his caddie, "All right, now what do we do?"
Woods eventually figured it out. He hit a 3-wood down the middle and stayed short of a daunting bunker, hit his approach 15 feet behind the flag and knocked in the putt.
Still, his momentary confusion summed up the mood at Shinnecock Hills on the eve of the U.S. Open.
The toughest test in golf usually brings out the jitters in everyone, from the world's No. 1 player to the two guys who have a chance to replace him, from amateurs playing the U.S. Open for the first time to major champions playing for the first time in months.
But the anticipation is higher than usual.
Shinnecock Hills looks nothing like it did in 1995, primarily because the rough has been shaved to resemble the rounded edges of the greens at British Opens.
"We don't play golf courses like this in this country," Woods said.
Woods looks nothing like he did when he left Long Island two years ago with the U.S. Open trophy while on a frightening 7-of-11 run through the majors. He is under more scrutiny than ever because of his engagement to a Swedish nanny, his divorce from a high-profile coach and shots that don't always go where he is aiming.
Ernie Els and Vijay Singh have chances to overtake Woods at No. 1 in the world -- a position he has occupied since Aug. 16, 1999 -- if they win at Shinnecock Hills.
"I'm eager to go play and I'm eager to go out there and perform well," Singh said. "I'm playing as good as I've ever played, and I can't do any more than just go out there and try to win the golf tournament."
Jim Furyk and David Duval are going to try to play, which is a story in itself.
Furyk figured he would be the first U.S. Open champion since Payne Stewart to be unable to defend his title when he had surgery on his left wrist three months ago. Lo and behold, he played two full rounds last week and decided Friday to fly to Long Island and give it a shot.
Can he win?
"My expectations are high," Furyk said. "They're not that high."
Duval has not played in eight months, hasn't won in three years and now is No. 434 in the world. His epiphany came Saturday evening while playing alone at Cherry Hills in Denver.
He played three holes and decided it was time to return to competitive golf.
"I was on a cart path next to the fourth tee," he said. "I had literally played the first three holes, teed off on the fourth one. I was alone, and that was when" he knew he wanted to play.
Was it a good tee shot?
"It was three good ones," Duval said.
That wasn't the case at Shinnecock. Playing his first practice round Wednesday afternoon, Duval's opening tee shot with a 3-wood hooked into the gallery, took a hop and hit a man in the back of the head.
Welcome to the U.S. Open, David.
Some have suggested he play an easier PGA Tour event as a tuneup, but Duval could not think of a better place to return. The U.S. Open rarely discriminates.
"How many times does anyone play great in a U.S. Open?" he said. "It's about hitting some shots and surviving."
That's what awaits the 156-man field when the 104th U.S. Open starts Thursday morning. The wind figures to be strong because Shinnecock is situated between the Atlantic and the Great Peconic Bay. The grass is high -- anyone can see that -- and the greens are hard and firm, like they always are at the U.S. Open.
"If the wind comes up like I think it will, I really think over par will win," said Tom Meeks, senior director of rules and competition for the USGA who sets up the golf course.
And if the wind doesn't come up? If the course doesn't play as tough as advertised? If the scores are low?
"Then the USGA stops watering the greens," Nick Price said. "They quadruple roll them. They triple cut them. Then, the scores go up again and everyone is happy -- except the players."
Most players are pleased with the golf course, particularly the collection areas around the greens that resemble the 1999 U.S. Open at Pinehurst No. 2.
Woods played only nine holes Wednesday morning, but he spent a lot of time around the green. He had his caddie, Steve Williams, tee up a ball on the edges of all corners of the green to give him a target, and from there it was a matter of determining how to get there.
The lofted chip. The full flop. A putter. A bump-and-run with a sand wedge. A 7-iron.
From behind the 11th green, a 158-yard hole that some describe as the shortest par 5 in golf because double bogeys are so frequent, Woods hit more than a dozen putts up the slope and never got within 10 feet of his target.
Ultimately, that's where this U.S. Open will be decided.
"Look at the last two guys who have won here," he said, referring to Corey Pavin in 1995 and Raymond Floyd in 1986. "Those are two of the greatest short games."
Woods said it was clear that shaved slopes -- instead of the rough around the greens -- was the way Shinnecock Hills was designed to play all along.
Meeks isn't so sure.
"I don't think the architects ever had any idea we would have all these closely mown areas," he said. "But we could bring them back, I believe they'd like it."