Saturday, December 27

Mature Hazeltine a tough test
By David Kraft

CHASKA, Minn. -- When the world's best golfers first saw then 8-year-old Hazeltine National at the 1970 U.S. Open, they hated it.

Three Holes To Watch
No. 3: The longest hole in PGA Championship history (636 yards) won't be a two-shot hole for anyone -- and the birdie most pros assume when they stand on the tee on a par 5 isn't assured. If the winds blows, it will be nasty.

No. 8: The shortest par-3 on the course at 178 yards, but also one of the most difficult. The green is small, with water guarding the right side. And it usually plays into a variable wind that makes club selection difficult.

No. 16: The signature hole at Hazeltine National. Only 402 yards, but there's water on both sides of the fairway, off the tee and a narrow, angled green the juts out into Lake Hazeltine. Some say the hole doesn't fit with the other 17 -- it's more Florida than Minnesota. But regardless of geography, it will be pivotal.

"What does it lack?" Dave Hill asked himself after a second round where 40 percent of the field couldn't break 80.

"Eighty acres of corn and a few cows," he answered. And Hill finished second to Tony Jacklin that year.

Twenty-one years later, thanks to plenty of reworking by architect Robert Trent Jones and his son Rees, a major championship returned for the 1991 U.S. Open, when Payne Stewart won in a playoff over Scott Simpson.

Hill, who returned for the event, noted the course's maturity. Stewart, who died tragically in a plane crash in 1999, had no complaints after his win.

And now, 11 years after that Open, the club that opened 40 years ago with the expressed intent of hosting major championships is in the crosshairs again. It's invested $2 million in new bunkers and irrigation. It has new tees on five holes. It's 211 yards longer than it was in 1991, and features the longest par 5 in PGA Championship history -- the 636-yard third.

How will it play?

"It's fair, but not like a Bethpage," said Stewart Cink, referring to the site of the 2002 U.S. Open. "There will be some guys under par."

"There doesn't seem to be a lot of tricks and hidden shots," Scott Verplank said.

Hazeltine is most often linked with Medinah, which hosted the 1999 PGA. The courses are similar in layout and look, though Hazeltine is often beset by fierce winds that can whip through the Minnesota prairie.

Humble beginnings
After the 1970 U.S. Open, it looked like Hazeltine National Golf Club had as much chance of becoming a corn field again as it did of staging another major championship.

The club couldn't sell memberships, and what was to have been its proudest moment was defined instead by a memorable quotation from a journeyman pro who was asked what he thought of the young course.

''They ruined a good farm when they built this course,'' Dave Hill said.

Club members recoiled in horror at the assault on their treasure. Then they listened again and discovered something they might have suspected all along -- there were some big problems in the Minnesota countryside.

Now, as the PGA Championship begins Thursday amid its sloping greens and tree-lined fairways, Hazeltine is not only a major player in the major championships but is also being talked about in reverential tones reserved for only the greats.

Well, maybe not reverential. But certainly respectful.

Hazeltine's full circle journey from farm to U.S. Open course and nearly back again can now be told with some humor and the confidence of a course that is guaranteed two PGA Championships and a Ryder Cup over the next 14 years.

For a while, though, Hill's thoughts weren't that funny in these parts.

''The club was stung by the comments, it's fair to say,'' club historian Tom Brakke said. ''It eclipsed what was really a great Open.''

Tony Jacklin won that Open by seven shots. But it was Hill who provided the memorable exchange that defined that Open and the club itself.

Hill had just shot a 69 to move into contention after the second round when he was invited into the press room to talk to reporters. In later years he would admit to having had a few drinks before the interview.

''Do you like the course any better now?'' a reporter asked.

''No sir,'' Hill replied. ''If I had to play this course everyday for fun, I'd find me another game.''

Next question: ''What does it lack?''

''Eighty acres of corn and a few cows,'' Hill said. ''They ruined a good farm when they built this course.''

Third question: ''What do you recommend they do with it?''

''Plow it up and start over again. The man who designed this course,'' he concluded, ''had the blueprints upside down.''
-- The Associated Press

"It is similar to Medinah," said Woods, who won three years ago at 11-under. "Some of the looks, some of the shapes, some of the holes -- it looks very similar. Hopefully I can use the same feeling I had then this week."

Theories on how to play the 7,360-yard course were mixed during practice rounds. Sergio Garcia said he expects plenty of players to hit driver, especially on the long par 4s and certainly the par 5s. Woods isn't so sure, saying he expects to see 3-woods and his new favorite off the tee, the 280-yard 2-iron, to keep the ball in the fairway. Phil Mickelson figures it's somewhere in the middle.

"What holes I will hit driver on will depend on the wind conditions," Mickelson said. "For the most part, I expect to hit it a fair amount of the time." Three of the four par 5s will likely be three-shot holes for all but the longest hitters. No one will reach the monstrous third hole in two. Well, probably no one. "I can't get there -- unless it's downwind," said Woods.

The par-3s aren't particularly long; the 178-yard eighth in the shortest hole on the course, but maybe the most dangerous, especially if the wind blows. The green is the smallest at Hazeltine. The 204-yard 13th was the third-toughest hole 11 years ago.

The par-4s are an eclectic mix. Several are short, including the 357-yard 14th, which some players will try to drive. The first hole is a 460-yard monster that won't yield many birdies.

The 16th, which runs along Lake Hazeltine, is the hole on the mind of most people. It was originally a par-3 along the lake. Before the 1991 Open, it was lengthened to a par 4, and played as the toughest hole that year (4.398, with only 41 birdies compared to 149 scores of bogey or worse).

An oak tree that guarded the green was lost in a storm, so the fairway has been reshaped slightly, bringing a stream on the left into play. Several bunkers were also added.

"It could be a major factor in this outcome of the event because so much can happen there," said Paul Azinger.

The 17th and 18th holes won't give up many birdies, though the par-4 18th favors the big hitters who can catch a downslope and roll to within 150 yards.

"Any time you play (the last three holes) even par, you're going to be doing well," Woods said.

How many under par will leaders go? In 1970, only Jacklin broke par for four rounds. In 1991, only six players were in red numbers.

The course isn't set up as extreme as it was then, so Hazeltine pro Mike Schultz thinks 10-under may be the number.

"I would say the way the golf course is playing now, it favors a lot more players than Bethpage did, but not as many as Muirfield," said Els.

"This is the kind of course you want to have for a major," said Garcia.

Kind words for Totten Peavey Heffelfinger's vision of a golf course in the suburban outskirts of Minneapolis. What a difference 32 years makes.

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