Rains soften Oakmont " will low scores follow? | VailDaily.com

Rains soften Oakmont " will low scores follow?

Alan Robinson
Associated Press
Vail, CO Colorado
Charles Krupa/AP PhotoLuke Donald of England throws his putter after missing a birdie putt on the 13th green during the first round of U.S. Open, Thursday.

OAKMONT, Pa. (AP) ” The rains came. The question now is whether lower-than-expected scores will follow at the U.S. Open.

Tiger Woods was among a growing number below par early in their rounds as opening round play began on time Thursday at Oakmont Country Club, despite heavy fog that burned off just in time to accommodate the first groups off the tee.

A thunderstorm dumped slightly less than a half inch of rain on Oakmont late Wednesday afternoon, softening up its wickedly fast greens right when the USGA felt they were in prime condition.

As a result, there were plenty of scores in the red among the first golfers on the course ” something Arnold Palmer didn’t predict Wednesday, when he wondered aloud if Oakmont might be too tough for this field.

With more than half those 156 golfers yet to tee off, Angel Cabrera was 3 under par through five holes, one stroke better than Jose Maria Olazabal (8 holes), David Toms (7 holes) and Pat Perez (4 holes). Six more were at 1-under, including Ernie Els, the 1994 winner at Oakmont, and Woods, who was a year away from playing in the U.S. Open the last time it stopped at Oakmont.

Woods took a bogey 5 on No. 1, birdied No. 2 and was 1 under through seven holes in his first competitive round at Oakmont.

This is a record eighth U.S. Open at Oakmont, but the first in 13 years, and only a dozen or so players have tournament experience on a course reputed to be the toughest in America.

This Oakmont doesn’t look like that pre-Tiger Oakmont of 1994, not with 5,000 trees leveled since then, the bunkers made deeper and more threatening and the Church Pews bunker expanded.

With so much trouble awaiting, and so little Oakmont experience out there, Palmer predicted it could be a very shaky opening round or two for many. He hasn’t missed an Open at Oakmont in more than 50 years, but he almost sounded relieved to be sitting this one out.

For all the changes, he said, what sets Oakmont apart are greens so fast and tilted that the USGA is having trouble finding four adequate pin placements on each hole.

“I’ve talked to some of the guys that have been out there and I’ve talked to some of the former champions who have been out there, and they tell me this field ” and this is just an observation ” is not really ready for Oakmont,” said Palmer, the tournament’s honorary chairman. “That they haven’t really learned yet how to play Oakmont.”

Palmer is certain of that, if only because he has played Oakmont for 66 years and even The King isn’t entirely sure if he fully knows a course whose greens are so frighteningly fast, so unnervingly difficult to read.

“There are golf courses over the years that I could play a practice round or two and feel pretty comfortable that I knew how to play it,” Palmer said. “Oakmont just doesn’t happen to be that kind of golf course. I’ve played, well, since I was 12 years old. And I’m not even sure now that I know every shot that I should hit, if I could hit it.”

Phil Mickelson, among the favorites, won The Players Championship last month and had a pair of third-place ties before that, and would seem to have plenty of momentum since switching to Butch Harmon as his coach. But even he didn’t know until he got on the course how much his left wrist injury would affect him.

Mickelson played half a round Wednesday, and hasn’t played a full round at Oakmont since injuring his wrist there chipping out of the thick rough last month. He wasn’t scheduled to tee off until Thursday afternoon.

Even if the wrist weren’t a bother ” he was resigned to playing in pain all week ” there was the issue of his 72nd-hole collapse at Winged Foot last year, one that cost him his first U.S. Open title and his fourth major.

Another question was how that late-afternoon thunderstorm Wednesday would affect play. It could soften the greens enough to permit lower scoring than expected ” remember, a similar rainstorm helped Johnny Miller shoot a final-round 63 and win the 1973 U.S. Open at Oakmont.

“It’s not going to be what we planned for,” said Tim Moraghan, the USGA agronomist. “Things were moving along quite well (before the storm). We thought we’d have a true, hard test for players on Thursday. The rain has altered this a little bit. We’re going to try and do everything we can to get the golf course back to where it was before this little rain.”

Or exactly what the field didn’t want to hear. Rory Sabbatini predicted that Oakmont will be so difficult that the player who finishes last will be 40 over par ” the equivalent of a bogey every other hole.

“These are the toughest greens we’ll ever play in U.S. Open history, or even any other tournament for that matter,” Els said before the rain storm. “With the rough and these greens, this is going to be a very, very tough test.”

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