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U.S. Open retraces steps to unflashy, big Baltusrol

Jack Nicklaus won two of his four U.S. Open championships at Baltusrol Golf Club, setting tournament scoring records each time, but he had difficulty remembering the holes before coming back this week.

Defending U.S. Open champion Tom Kite described Baltusrol as "not very distinctive." Golf Digest described it as "an uninspiring golf course."

Yet for the seventh time _ more than any other venue _ the tournament is at Baltusrol. When 156 players tee off today in the first round of the 93rd U.S. Open, they are likely to find a course that is long, firm and fast _ but probably not as treacherous as past sites.

It is nothing fancy, especially when compared with last year's site, Pebble Beach (Calif.) Golf Links. There are no cliffs, no breathtaking views, no gimmicks. Just 7,152 yards at par 70, with the only two par 5s on the course coming at the end.

"I like the course," said Tom Watson, who won the U.S. Open in 1982 at Pebble Beach. "It's in excellent condition. And it takes all of your game to play this golf course."

"Personally, I think it's going to be the fairest U.S. Open I've ever played in," Greg Norman said.

The course's signature hole is the par-3 fourth, which will play from 194 yards or 162 yards. The green is guarded by a walled pond, but professionals rarely have trouble hitting over water.

What likely will be more bothersome is the number of long holes. Five par 4s measure more than 450 yards. The par-5 17th is 630 yards; the green never has been reached in two shots. And if they play the fourth hole from the back tees, all four par 3s are at least 180 yards.

The course finishes with the easiest hole: the 542-yard, par-5 18th, which under proper conditions is reachable in two shots by just about every player.

"The U.S. Open is the pinnacle of golf tournaments because you are forced to play tough golf courses in their most difficult conditions," Watson said. "The bottom line is I think it takes more nerve to win the U.S. Open, simply because the conditions are, for the most part, more difficult than in any other tournament we play."

That typically has been one of the criticisms of the U.S. Open: Driving the ball into the narrow fairways is emphasized much more than anything else. Because the rough is usually so high, it takes away an element _ creativity _ that allows many to prosper.

The U.S. Open has been especially difficult for foreign players. None has won the tournament since Australian David Graham at Merion in 1981, and he lived in Dallas and played the PGA Tour. Before that, England's Tony Jacklin at Hazeltine in 1970 and South Africa's Gary Player in 1965 at Bellerive. Before that, 1927 and Scotland's Tommy Armour at Oakmont.

Theory attributes foreign misery to the difficult rough around the greens at U.S. Open sites. Tournament courses in Europe, Asia, Australia and South Africa almost never include deep rough around the greens, meaning players can hit all kinds of chip shots to get close to the hole and save par. At the U.S. Open, those shots are taken away.

"They do take chipping out of the game," said Germany's Bernhard Langer, who won his second Masters title in April. "You always have bunkers or rough. There are very few shots where you can use a 7-iron or a 9-iron to chip. You don't have a choice. You just flop it on."

But Baltusrol has large greens and, in many places, openings in front that allow players to hit bump-and-run shots short of the green in hopes of bouncing the ball on. This sort of game rarely is played in the United States, because American greens usually are soft and accepting of high shots.

"This is probably the least amount of rough I've seen at a U.S. Open," Kite said. "It's a little bit of a surprise. There are times you can even hit a wood out of it."

That does not necessarily mean the course will play as easily as it did in 1980, when Nicklaus and Tom Weiskopf shot course-record 63s in the first round and Nicklaus won with what is still a U.S. Open-record 272, 8 under par.

"It looks like that record will be safe," Scotland's Sandy Lyle said. "I would be very surprised if someone broke it. It is so demanding on every shot. There are a lot of 460-, 470-yard holes. There will be a lot of wear and tear on your long game, a lot of long second shots."