FARMINGDALE, N.Y. - After years of too-large fields and too-late finishes, and that's without factoring in weather delays, the United States Golf Association has finally bowed to the inevitable.
The U.S. Open, which begins tomorrow on the Black Course at Bethpage State Park, will be the first to operate with two-tee starts during the first two rounds.
A near-weekly staple on the PGA Tour and a time-saving method employed in some other major championships, the two-tee start has long been avoided by the USGA because the game's bluebloods have always figured tournaments start on No. 1, affording all players the opportunity to play the same holes in the same order.
But the USGA adopted a two-tee start for the U.S. Women's Open in 2000 and for last year's Senior Open. Now, a 101-year tradition ends as it comes to the National Open, where the field will be divided into early and late waves with half starting at No. 1, the other half at No. 10 on alternate days.
“The two-tee start should result in nearly two hours more of daylight after the last starting time, allowing more flexibility if inclement weather hits,” said Fred Ridley, chairman of the USGA's championship committee.
Ironically, the maiden voyage comes at Bethpage Black, a public course which offers two of the most distinctly different starts in Open history.
“I think the golf course starts in a mode where you can make some birdies the first four, five, six holes because you've got a reachable par 5 (517-yard No. 4) and several holes where you can hit short irons in to the greens,” Phil Mickelson said. “But then it just slaps you in the face.”
Players make the turn into links-style parallel holes separated by tall fescue grasses, six large sand bunkers and grassy hollows. The 10th, where the prevailing wind is in the golfers' faces, has a subtle dogleg left and plays at 492 yards while No. 11, though shorter at 435 yards, offers a blind tee shot and the most steeply sloped green on the course.
Then comes No. 12, the longest par 4 in Open history at 499 yards. It has a sharp dogleg left and a large, multi-tiered green.
Even Tiger Woods, to whom distance is rarely a big issue, agreed that it's a challenging stretch on a course that he said is the most difficult par-70 track he has ever played.
“If you're starting out at (No.) 10, it's going to be tough to get off to a positive start,” said Woods, who hit driver-6 iron at the 10th hole and driver-5-iron at No. 12 during his practice round yesterday. “It's the first time we've ever done that at an Open, starting off in the middle of the round. And then, to go off on a hole that long with a couple holes that are no bargains after that. It's tough.”
For the final two rounds, after the 36-hole cut, the format will revert to a traditional first-tee start.
“Going off on No. 10, though, is not the most comfortable start, put it that way,” said Jose Maria Olazabal. “You'd like to at least play a few holes before getting to the 10th tee, that's for sure. But everybody will have to do it one day or the other.”
Mickelson called it “the meat of the golf course and starting there means you won't have an opportunity to get into a rhythm or a flow and feel any confidence. When the 12th hole is playing into the wind, it will play like a par 5. The scoring average there will be like 4.7, I bet. To me, it will be a great start to play the first three or four holes on the back in even par.”
The final hole in the four-hole stretch of toughies is the par-5 13th, a 554-yarder that curls to the right with a challenging cross bunker about 30 yards short of the green.
“Normally, we look at par 5s as birdie holes,” Mickelson said, “but that hole will be tough to salvage par on. You have to hit two great tee shots, really, on a very, very tight fairway. You have to hit a good drive and, typically, a 3-wood or 2-iron for your second shot.”
The golfers will get a much-needed breather at the par-3 14th, which is probably the easiest hole on the course at 161 yards.
But that is followed by the most demanding hole on any of Bethpage's five courses. The par-4 15th measures 459 yards, has a subtle dogleg and a two-tiered green perched 50 feet above fairway level.
“There are two ways to look at starting on the back nine,” said Davis Love III. “It will be nice to get it out of the way, or, it's going to be a tough, tough start.”