Weather key at 59th U.S. Women's Open venue
A recent issue of GolfWorld described The Orchards, site of the 2004 U.S. Women's Open, as "quirky." One might ask what classic course, built essentially by hand, is not quirky? You want to talk quirky, take a look at The Old Course at St. Andrews.
The Orchards is a Donald Ross design that opened between 1922 and 1923. As was the case with all courses of the time, clearing and shaping were done by hand in concert with Mother Nature herself, using the occasional ox team for muscle. Consider first the recent controversy over Pinehurst No. 2, another Donald Ross design, before you start calling classic old tracks "quirky."
This said, even the proudest Orchards Golf Club member was shocked when the USGA announced that the 59th U.S. Women's Open would be held at their club, which has been owned by the elite women-only Mount Holyoke College since 1941. Mount Holyoke's College Street Journal reports that when athletic director Laurie Priest made the announcement that The Orchards would host the 2004 U.S. Women's Open, everyone thought she was either joking or mistaken. This year marks the first time that a national men's or women's open championship would be held at a college-owned course.
So how does The Orchards, which will play to a par of 71 (36-35) and measure 6,473 yards for the championship, stack up as a major venue? Hilary Lunke, defending U.S. Women's Open champion, has not yet had a chance to play it, but after a recent drive around the course, she described the layout as, "an old-fashioned golf course with small greens." Lunke went on to say, "I love old-style courses. We'll need our best short games, long games, and ball-striking."
That narrows it down, doesn't it? Seriously, what type of player will fare best here? We played an exclusive pre-tournament practice round to pinpoint the swing holes and figure out who might take home the championship trophy this year.
Assistant golf professional at The Orchards Bill Rosenblum grew up playing golf at The Orchards, and knows the place like the back of his lamb-skin golf glove. According to Rosenblum, one hole certain to be overlooked by the media (because it won't get any television coverage) is the first hole. "If [No. 1] were anywhere else on the course," he predicts, "it would get a lot of attention. It's one of the best holes here. Long hitters won't be able to get up and hit driver, because of the creek," which bisects the fairway at 250 yards off the tee of the 399-yard opener.
One striking feature - and a Donald Ross hallmark - is the uniformly small, often domed greens. Every one of the nearly round greens measures between 22 and 27 yards deep, and between 18 and 32 yards wide - tiny by today's standards. If the weather is dry, the putting surfaces are going to be hard as the cover on a Pinnacle, and anything other than a perfectly struck approach will scamper off to hide in the high rough.
On the other hand, dry conditions would make for more roll on the fairways, so the players would be using shorter irons on their approaches. Wet conditions, while making the greens more receptive, might be disastrous - for both golfers and galleries. Despite the new drainage system installed last season, a sustained downpour will turn the low-lying Orchards into something resembling the original Woodstock, minus the bad acid and great music. Everyone will find themselves slogging through ankle-deep mud in no time, and approaches into the thumbnail greens will require fairway woods.
During our round, we found soggy conditions a plenty, due to some short cloudbursts over the previous two days. On the 354-yard second, my drive plugged in the fairway 90 yards from the green. Even in the short grass, it's hard to find your ball when less than a quarter-inch of it is above ground.
Besides the first hole, other swing holes will be the sixth, where new tees will stretch out the normally 366-yard par 4. Off the elevated tees, a pond pinches the landing area from the left. Even the best drive leaves a steeply uphill approach to a completely occluded two-tiered putting surface.
The short but uphill 331-yard 12th and its 405-yard downhill sister the 14th will be the two most camera-friendly holes during the tournament. The latter, in particular, offers panoramic views of the surrounding mountains. In fact, the careful observer will notice on the 14th tee how the contours of the green mirror those of the mountains on the horizon. Ross built it this way - one of those "quirks" the less cynical among us might call art.
Of course the USGA has set up the course so that the drama will culminate on the closing three holes (unless an unfortunate caddy gets sucked into the mud somewhere else on the course). The 456-yard 16th is normally a par-5 for the members, but will play as a par-4 during the Open. Long hitters will have a definite advantage here, as the green is severely tilted from back to front, and if hard, it will be tough to hold with anything longer than an 8-iron.
The 17th is one of the six holes on the course with new tees for the championship. The 161-yard par-3 can now be stretched all the way out to 190 yards. Bill Rosenblum points out that players who prefer to draw the ball will now have to hit long irons or fairway woods (as opposed to just mid-irons) out over the creek, fescue, and bunkers lining the right side of the hole. We could see some big numbers here if the wind decides to turn evil.
There could be plenty of shotmaking drama at the brutal 445-yard, par-4 closing hole. Although the tee shot is not difficult, the second is uphill, over a stream, to - what else? - a small, tiered green. Approaches from the right side of the fairway will be especially testy, since trees will force more fades from this position. A lot of players are going to miss this green, especially if it's hard and dry. So expect both dramatic successful up-and-downs and heart-breaking failures.
If The Orchards is quirky (in anything but the endearing sense of the term), then many other major championship venues are downright bizarre. There are no weak holes here - all require precise placement from tee to green, though all also offer alternate, though trickier, routes. Conditions will be critical. Tom Meeks, USGA Senior Director of Rules and Competition, admitted on the day I played that "[Today], you'll say there are some weak spots." But Meeks defends the job of the crews and the prospects for the tournament: "That's okay, because we're not playing today."
Indeed, we noted a number of potential problems: The fairway on No. 3 is a bit of a mess, and several greens have rough patches, which we invariably had to putt across. Nevertheless, the USGA isn't panicking. Members are already playing to four temporary greens, and the six new tee boxes won't be in play until the Open. The course will close down completely on June 18 to complete preparation.
So, who's going to win (aside from the obvious pick of Annika)? As mentioned, weather will be decisive; however, the sadistic little greens will demand a deft touch and a keen putting stroke irrespective of conditions. Long hitters will have an advantage, because they'll be using shorter irons on approaches. But someone with a world-class short game and decent long-irons should do well, too.
If conditions are fast and dry, Grace Park, who currently ranks 19th in GIR, T-3rd in driving distance, and 1st in putting, should be a favorite. But Park's spotless beauty and impeccable dress don't bode well if the conditions turn swampy, in which case a mudder has a better shot. If things get mucky, look for Karrie Webb, who right now ranks 8th in GIR, T-10th in driving accuracy, and 39th in driving distance to regain her major-winning form if her putter cooperates (T-62nd in putting average).
June 17, 2004