Players in today's first round of the U.S. Senior Open will enthusiastically report to the first tee at Inverness Club, hoping for a couple birdies out of the starting gate.
The first two holes are relatively short and demand the type of approach shots professional golfers and world-class amateurs handle with ease. Red numbers will go up on the scoreboard early and often.
And then everything changes.
Beginning with No. 3 is a five-hole stretch as difficult as any in major championship golf.
“That's the most important stretch of holes on the golf course,” said Tom Watson. “You can go for big numbers on those holes.”
Players who go the distance in this 72-hole tournament will post 20 scores on those holes. It figures those who survive them at even par or better will be crowding the top of the leaderboard come late Sunday afternoon, when a champion is crowned in this premier senior event for the 24th time.
A field of 156 golfers opens play today off the Nos. 1 and 10 tees, with starting times stretching from 7:30 a.m. to 9:20 a.m., then from 12:30 p.m. to 2:30 p.m.
The 6,983-yard Inverness course has been a load for the players during three days of practice rounds. It has been sunny and hot, and the tight course with its signature small greens has been baked firm and fast.
If rain forecast for later today either doesn't materialize or doesn't change the playing conditions appreciably, Watson said he “doubts if below par will be the winning score. This golf course is as tough a golf course as we played as seniors, no question about it. It's going to create some high scores.”
Nowhere will the challenge be greater or the scores potentially higher than over the five holes starting at No. 3 and including the fourth and seventh holes, Donald Ross-designed par 4s that are highly regarded by golf experts everywhere.
“Those are the two hardest holes on the golf course, I think,” said Craig Stadler, who won the 1973 U.S. Amateur at Inverness. “That whole stretch is awfully good.”
It begins with the 194-yard, par-3 third hole that features a pond off the right edge of the green and a bunch of pin placements that bring the water into play.
“Whether it's your third hole or [because of starting on the back nine] your 12th, No. 3 will get your heart pumping,” said Tom Kite.
“There is nothing on the golf course as severe as the right side of the third green,” added Jack Nicklaus, who has played in four major championships at Inverness, three of them since No. 3 was added as part of a late-1970s course renovation. “You miss the green, just roll it off the edge, and the ball is in the water every time. And you cannot miss the green left.
“Every other hole on the golf course leaves you some option somewhere. You really don't have any options there.”
The fifth and sixth holes were also added during the renovation by designers George and Tom Fazio, and while they debuted to mixed reviews, at best, during the 1979 U.S. Open - they were “different in character from the other holes,” according to Nicklaus - they have since matured.
The fifth hole is relatively short, 431 yards, but has a narrow, dogleg fairway with a creek to the right and a small green featuring what Stadler called “a big old hill” smack in the middle.
The sixth is another par 3, but it is far from typical at 228 yards, with a green that might be the toughest on the course to read.
Then, of course, there are Ross' two classic, picturesque par 4s, Nos. 4 and 7.
“Severe?” said Kite, repeating a question. “They're two of the best vertical greens in existence. You know, most greens they lay in there horizontal. These are tilted, pretty close to vertical.
“They have done something really nasty on No. 4 that I don't remember from years past. There's a false front and the ball can come back off the green much farther than it used to.”
Kite said he has seen several green fronts at recent U.S. Open venues shaved in a similar manner, and “the ball runs back 40 or 50 yards off the green and usually winds up in a patch of divots.
“But that doesn't take away from the fact that those two holes are fabulous golf holes.”
The seventh green, minus a false front, is even more difficult because of size and tremendous slope.
“In both cases you have to hit quality iron shots just to get [the ball] on the greens,” Kite said.
“But just getting it on and keeping it on is not the total solution. It's very difficult putting once you get there. They are really tough.”
Fuzzy Zoeller said that stretch is typical of tough, major championship play in that “you hope that when you bring your golf bag out of the car, you've got all your shots in that bag. That is a stretch of good, fair golf holes, a very true test of golf.”
Stadler feels Zoeller's comment applies to more than just the consecutive, five-hole barrage.
“I mean, Nos. 1 through 18 is a pretty good stretch of holes. And the driving range isn't bad either.”