Commentary

Bethpage Black long, getting longer

Originally Published: June 15, 2009
By Jason Sobel | ESPN.com

5:12 p.m. ET: Time to wrap up the live blog for the day.

What did we learn on Monday of U.S. Open week? Well, Bethpage Black is looooonnnngggg ... and it ain't gettin' any shorter.

With thunder rumbling in the background as I write this, more rain is expected to attack this course throughout the week, meaning it could be an absolute monster by the time we get to the competitive rounds.

But no tourney was ever decided on a Monday, so it remains to be seen exactly what is in store later this week.

I'll be back with more of the live blog from here at the Black on Tuesday morning at 10 a.m. ET. Until then, hit 'em straight ...

4:28 p.m. ET: E-mail from Brian in Louisville:

How exactly do the pros play a practice round? Is it pretty much them walking the course and putting the ball down wherever and hitting what shots they feel they need to work on, or do they go about playing a normal round of golf?

A little of both. There's no distinct blueprint for playing a practice round, so it all depends on the player and the day. Some will hit an extra tee shot or two off a tee, others will throw one ball into the fairway and one in the rough on a given hole. Almost every time, each player will hit putts not to where the current hole is cut, but to locations where he thinks it will be cut during tournament rounds. I'd say on average each player spends about 10 minutes on and around each of the greens.


4:07 p.m. ET: Just walked the practice range for a little while until I looked up in the sky and half-expected some frogs to start pouring down.

I did get a chance to speak with Jimmy Kennedy, who is caddying this week for Michael Welch -- one of the "dreamers" from the piece I posted earlier.

Kennedy put a bit of a different spin on how the rainy weather could affect play this week. He said they've played three practice rounds already and each time there were "lots of mud balls and knucklers."

Doesn't take a golf geek to understand how seriously this could affect certain shots.


3:44 p.m. ET: Just spoke with Zach Johnson, who hasn't been on the course yet today but who was here last Monday at the same time as Tiger Woods.

How does he feel about playing such a lengthy course this week?

"For me, Zach Johnson, a ball-striker of modest length? Not very happy."

And if it rains this week?

"The course will play very, very, very, very long."

Yes, four mentions of "very." That's long.



3:16 p.m. ET: For those who think Bronson Burgoon is a name out of nowhere, he's a superstar here compared to some competitors.

Allow me to pimp my own piece on some lesser-known guys. I know it's been posted for a few days already, but humor me …


2:36 p.m. ET: First player to sit down on the dais in the interview room this week? None other than … Bronson Burgoon.

What, you don't know Bronson Burgoon? This is the kid who hit an approach shot from the rough to within inches on the final hole of the final match of the NCAA championship to win the title for Texas A&M. He recently qualified for the U.S. Open through sectionals, and earlier this afternoon he spoke with the assembled media members …

On qualifying for the Open: "It was one of the coolest things I've ever done. Golf course is tough. You have to keep it in the fairway. It's mainly the only key to this golf course -- well, not the only thing, but that's the major thing … keep it in play and stay below the hole. Which is kind of routine with any golf course you play, but especially this one. The feeling, it was incredible. I had a grin on my face; I've been smiling since I arrived here in New York. It's been an unbelievable experience."

On the difference between playing the Open and the NCAA championship: "The national championship, yeah, it's a big tournament. But there's not a lot of people out there watching, so you can really focus on your game. Out here, there's so many things to distract you. You're trying to hit your shot and all you can see are people and tents and cameras. That's going to be the hardest thing for me, is to just keep my focus this week and just play golf."

On being one of 16 amateurs in this week's field: "I just think the level of competition as amateurs now has gone way up. You know, like you can tell Anthony Kim comes out and does real well; Dustin Johnson comes out and does really well. Time and time again, people are just proving that young guys can play, and that's why college is so great. You get awesome competition, and it prepares you for this. So, you know, people are ready."


1:39 p.m. ET: Since I have a lot of free time right now, I'm also working on my annual 1-156 ranking of the entire U.S. Open field. It's a brutal process. First, I'll place each player into one of five categories. Basically, they are: "Guys Who Can Win," "Potential Contenders," "Middle of the Pack," "Likely MCers" and "No Shot, No Way, No How."

From there, I'll rank every player in each of those five categories, which makes it an easier task to handle. After that, I'll second-guess myself and rearrange all of them. Then I'll third-guess myself and put 'em back the way they were.

I'm currently still stuck on listing guys for that first category. I'd like to see just how long the course is playing before naming a fairly short hitter like Zach Johnson or Steve Stricker to the "Guys Who Can Win" list.

As if that weren't tough enough, try picking which player should rank No. 156. I mean, what's the difference between 155 and 156?

Thoughts? Suggestions? Comments?


1:21 p.m. ET: Let's go to the inbox for the first time this week …

From John in San Antonio:

Are the greens soft after the rain? Showers are in the forecast from Thursday through Saturday, and T-storms [predicted] for Sunday. Will we most likely not see blazingly fast greens? Can they keep the greens really fast to putt on, but soft and able to hold in-bounds shots because of the rain?

Unlike us mere mortals trying to slog our way through rainy rounds, the pros love when the heavy stuff comes down -- especially before their tee time -- since it softens up the course. Here at Bethpage, though, the advantages of the rain may be negated by the disadvantages. While it will certainly soften up the greens (USGA officials have said they'll likely roll at about 14-14½ on the Stimpmeter), it will also make an already brutally long course even longer. So approach shots will have a better chance of holding the green, but if a player is losing any sort of roll off his drive -- leaving him with, say, 5-iron into the green instead of a 7-iron -- that will effectively level the playing field.

The guys who really want it to rain this week are those who hit a higher ball flight. Tiger Woods, Angel Cabrera, Paul Casey and Kenny Perry can hit the ball a mile in the air, which is always beneficial in this type of environment because they have a better chance of holding the greens, rather than bouncing or rolling it off.


12:24 p.m. ET: According to eyewitnesses, Tiger Woods appeared to be hitting mostly 3-wood off the tee during today's practice round.

This could be a huge factor in his ability to succeed this week.

It's no secret that Woods has struggled to find the short stuff with his driver during his career. Two weeks ago, though, he hit almost exclusively 3-wood off the tee in reaching 87.5 percent of the fairways at Muirfield Village, including 14 of 14 during the final round en route to victory.

Much like the 2006 British Open, if TW can eschew the driver in favor of 3-wood off the tee, he's going to be in much better position for his approach shots.

From what I understand, that was the approach today, even on a wet course that is playing lengthier than usual.


12:10 p.m. ET: Walking in the rough down the right side of the first hole, I just realized that I forgot something I always bring for U.S. Open practice rounds.

Golf balls.

I'll usually bring two or three and drop 'em in the thick stuff, testing how they sit up -- or down -- and the playability from those lies.

In recent years, USGA course setup guru Mike Davis has made it known that he prefers a variable rough, one in which Player A could have a flier lie and just a foot away Player B could find his ball buried. This isn't designed to be unfair to the golfers; instead, it plays into the organization's idea that players should be forced to think and strategize while attempting to play any shot.

Even without dropping my customary few golf balls in the rough, I can tell that this is once again very much the case here at Bethpage.

Sure, a certain amount of luck is involved when in the rough, but if players don't like it, there's one very easy solution: Keep it in the fairways.


11:47 a.m. ET: Quick stroll through the locker room. Saw Justin Leonard, Ian Poulter, Tom Lehman, Stuart Appleby and others.

Even if you knew nothing else about this facility, just seeing the locker room would be enough to prove that this isn't some elitist private country club. Pretty austere digs, with narrow lockers and each player's nameplate affixed to the outside. Hardly anything special.

Players are actually separated alphabetically into two separate locker rooms across the hall from each other.

In fact, the guys whose names start with P-Z are in the women's locker room. Worst part of that? They have to walk across the hallway to find a urinal.

Tyson Alexander has the first locker in one room; Kaname Yokoo had the last one in the other until late entrant David Erdy got the one next to him.

By the way, Tiger Woods is right on the aisle. Cameron Yancey will have the honor of, uh, getting dressed next to him. Check the Twitter feed for more info.


11:21 a.m. ET: Standing just off the practice green right now, which is only a mid-range putt away from the front of the clubhouse.

This is always an interesting scene at the Open. In addition to PGA Tour regulars (Angel Cabrera and David Toms are here), there are club pros and other amateurs who qualified through sectionals.

That means among the 40-pound golf bags lugged by touring caddies each week, there are also several stand bags just like you'd see at any other municipal course.

Whoever said "size doesn't matter" has never tried to win a U.S. Open while carrying a stand bag.


10:47 a.m. ET: It was announced this morning that for the first time, the U.S. Open and U.S. Women's Open will be played in back-to-back weeks at the same venue in 2014.

Pinehurst No. 2 was already in line to host the U.S. Open that year and now it will be directly followed by the women's edition of the event.

"We're doing a double-header. We're going for the twin bill," David Fay, executive director of the USGA, told me recently. "I think this is going to be an opportunity where people might put the image of Ernie Banks up on the wall. 'Let's play two.' "

Due to the unique nature of the situation, USGA officials believe there will be some very specific benefits, not the least of which is "causing a great deal of buzz," said Fay.

"It's a very good course on which to try this, for the following reasons: It's a resort and the ownership is willing to do it, which might not be the case with a private club," Fay explained. "And then you take the golf course itself, the sand-based area of the sand hills will minimize the traffic outside the ropes. Inside the ropes, having two championships on back-to-back weeks is basically a break for the golf course, because if you took the average amount of resort play on those two weeks, it would certainly be far more than what you're going to get for the Open and the Women's Open, particularly on the weekends. And then there's the setup of the golf course itself. There's no rough around the greens and while there's rough obviously on either side of the fairways of the par-4s and 5s, because of the nature of the grass, it's not as high as we would normally have. And the reality is that the women tend to hit it straighter than the men anyway, so rough should not be an issue."

The consecutive events should also be a money-saver, if not a money-maker, for the organizing committee, which will in effect get a two-for-the-price-of-one deal on hosting a major championship event.

"There's going to be volume discount on certain things -- tents, grandstands," said Fay. "For the broadcast partners, ESPN and NBC, the same deal. You don't have to break down the circus and move to another town."

There are also some specific disadvantages, which could serve as a hindrance during each of the tournaments, though each instance has been addressed by the USGA. In the case of a U.S. Open playoff, for example, the Women's Open competitors would simply have to wait their turn to commence practicing on the course.

"On Monday morning, the women would be using the practice facility," Fay said. "When the playoff is done, then onto No. 2 they go. It's also not a guarantee that all players from the U.S. Women's Open show up for their practice day on Monday."

There's also a matter of retaining the status quo on-course for the Women's Open, which traditionally draws fewer spectators than the U.S. Open.

"We are going to keep the infrastructure in place from the Open," Fay revealed. "We would certainly never have the Women's Open looking anything like a construction site. So that means that you're probably going to have grandstands that aren't filled. It's no secret; we aren't drawing the same number of people, typically, for a Women's Open that we do for an Open. ... When you see Duke women play North Carolina women in the Dean Dome or some of that early-round action in the NCAA, you can't help but notice the empty seats when you're in a big arena. But given the way producers and directors in golf are, the shots are going to be tight in. So it's not like you're going to feel like the players are in some sort of a cavernous environment and there's no one there."

While this will be the first time a U.S. Open and U.S. Women's Open are contested on consecutive weeks at the same venue, it is hardly the first time that two USGA events have been played on the same course back-to-back. In 1895, the more-heralded U.S. Amateur was hosted at Newport CC, with the first-ever U.S. Open held there one week later.

"In an ideal world, it would be great to have 312 players on one golf course, same cut, like Roland Garros or Wimbledon or the U.S. Tennis Open, where the women and men are playing concurrently on the same course," Fay explained. "But we can't do that."


10:42 a.m. ET: You know that sound flip-flops make when you're walking on pavement? I'm making that same sound right now.

In my Weekly 18 column, I wrote that even-par 280 would be enough to win the title this week. (No. 13 on the right-hand side.)

Now I'm not so sure that's true.

And it has nothing to do with how players are faring in practice rounds or any changes to the course by the USGA. No, I'm basing this solely on a contest from a few days ago.

As part of the Golf Digest U.S. Open Challenge, three heavyweight celebs played the Black last Friday. They fared pretty well, too. Justin Timberlake shot 88, Michael Jordan shot 86 and Ben Roethlisberger took low-man honors with an 81.

Now, I know those three guys are each decent players in their own right, but we've gotten used to legitimate PGA Tour pros shooting those types of numbers at the U.S. Open in past years. If JT, MJ, and Big Ben can post scores like that -- in Open-ready conditions and from the tips -- then some of the world's best may not be about to get their brains battered by the Black like we all think.


10:11 a.m. ET: If the final leaderboard on Sunday evening included the names Robert Karlsson, Trevor Immelman, Dudley Hart and Shingo Katayama, it may not be enough for you to call it the best Father's Day ever, but none of those four names would be a complete surprise, either.

They each have something in common, though. All four players have already withdrawn from the U.S. Open -- the latest being Katayama, who was forced to pull out this morning due to back problems.

Shingo, who finished fourth at the Masters this year, has been replaced by a guy who doesn't exactly have the same amount of name recognition. Now in the field is 19-year-old David Erdy of Boonville, Ind., who shot rounds of 67-70 in the Dayton, Ohio, sectional qualifier to achieve alternate status.

The best part? Since tee times have already been created for the first two rounds, Erdy will simply slide into Katayama's spot, meaning the kid will tee it up with one major champion in Zach Johnson and another guy, Lee Westwood, who played in the final pairing of this event last year.


10 a.m. ET: Live blogging from a major championship? Been there, done that -- and I'll do it again once the U.S. Open starts on Thursday.

But live blogging from a major championship three days before it even starts? This is truly a monumentally groundbreaking moment in the history of journalism.

Or I just had nothing else to do.

Whatever, the case, I'm here at Bethpage State Park ready to roll nearly 72 hours before the tournament kicks off in earnest. Already this morning, the skies have cleared -- it was pouring about three hours ago -- and a few dozen competitors are on the Black Course, getting in their practice rounds.

Time to watch some of those guys and speak with them about the upcoming Open.

One note before I start: Don't expect the live blog to be updated nearly as much during the next three days as it will be once the tournament has started. Why? Well, uh, because there's not as much happening -- that's why. Even so, hit refresh early and often to get the latest posts.

And as always, e-mail any questions, comments, suggestions or -- if you're so inclined -- poetry and rap songs to usopenblog@gmail.com or Twitter at JasonSobel.

Jason Sobel | email

Golf Editor, ESPN.com
Jason Sobel, who joined ESPN in 1997, earned four Sports Emmy awards as a member of ESPN's Studio Production department. He became ESPN.com's golf editor in July 2004.