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Published: Wednesday, 6/13/2007

Golfers don't want to go to 'church'

BY DAVE HACKENBERG
BLADE SPORTS COLUMNIST

OAKMONT, Pa. - Oakmont Country Club has firm fairways, snarling rough and fast greens, although the word fast doesn't really do them justice. But the club and its golf course have long been known best for the famous "church pew" bunkers that are unlike any in golf.

They divide the parallel third and fourth fairways, on the left edge of both, and have been lengthened, widened and made deeper for the 107th U.S. Open that begins here tomorrow.

The bunker complex measures 26,000 square feet and is made up alternately of sand and 12 narrow islands of high grass that line up horizontally.

"I think they're cool - some of the coolest bunkers in the game," said Phil Mickelson.

Tiger Woods said yesterday that he had not practiced hitting out of the church pews.

"I don't really think that you should be practicing negativity," Woods, a two-time Open champion, said. "You're not going to place the golf ball there and, if you do make a mistake, you just basically are going to wedge out anyway. Accept your mistake and move on."

Ernie Els didn't have to accept any mistakes in 1994, when he won the most recent of seven previous Opens at Oakmont.

"I never hit into them, touch wood," he said. "I remember on No. 3 I always hit a 2-iron down the fairway, laying it back. And, on 4, I made sure I kept it right."

Unlike Woods, though, Els said he would drop a couple balls and hit shots out of the four-foot deep sand and from the grass islands during today's final practice round.

"You never know what's going to happen under pressure," he said. "We all kind of lose it sometimes. So that's what practice rounds are for, to hit all kinds of different shots."

The No. 3 hole is a relatively short, 428-yard par 4, so most players will hit irons or rescue clubs off the tee to steer balls into the fairway. That's a bit of a sacrifice, though, on the 609-yard fourth hole, where the fairway is pinched by the church pews on the left and an even tougher and deeper bunker complex directly across the fairway on the right edge.

STILL A CUB: Oakmont also features a par-3 hole, No. 8, which will play at either 252 or 288 yards based on which tee is used in various rounds. Depending on the wind, it is expected that some golfers may be forced to hit driver from the back tee. Woods was asked if he might be among them.

"Driver? Come on, I'm not that old yet," Woods said. "I'll hit 3-wood or 5-wood there, depending on the wind, from the back tee. I hit 3-wood into the wind and I can still reach the front edge. It'll become a little easier if the fairways continue to dry out."

OPEN DROUGHT: Padraig Harrington doesn't pay much attention to the fact that no European golfer has won the U.S. Open since 1970.

"I think that's a way of just using historical data to put [a spin] on a future event," the Irishman said.

"At the end of the day, who knows who is going to win this week? If the Europeans had won the last 25, would we have a better or less chance of winning the next one?

"Golf is very strong in Europe at the moment, especially the young guys coming through. It's probably only a question of time."

The last European champion was England's Tony Jacklin, who won at Hazeltine in Minnesota. There was also a European winner, Tommy Armour, in 1927 at Oakmont.

CHIP SHOTS: Oakmont will be set up at 7,230 yards and play to a par of 35-35-70. This is Oakmont's eighth Open; no other club has hosted more than seven. Since the last Open here in 1994, an estimated 5,000 trees have been removed, returning the course to its original inland links style. In '94, Els won a winner's prize of $320,000. This week's Open champion will win at least $1,225,000. There are 12 players, including Els, who played in '94 and are in this year's field. The others are Olin Browne, Fred Funk, Jim Furyk, Paul Goydos, Lee Janzen, Davis Love III, Colin Montgomerie, Phil Mickelson, Jose Maria Olazabal, Jeff Sluman and Scott Verplank. England's David Howell withdrew from the Open yesterday because of a wrist injury.



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