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Torrey Pines’ bite might lack sharp teeth

SAN DIEGO — The USGA has a problem: A golf course that it expected to play like "The Exorcist" for this week’s U.S. Open could prove a track more resembling "Bambi."

The place that was once the site of a World War II Army base might not present the planet’s best golfers many land mines to avoid. The only ones feeling any misery could be those handed receipts at the merchandise tent and anyone in Row 15 of the Tiger-Phil gallery.

Torrey the Terrible could be Torrey the Timid when the tournament’s 108th version begins today, which would put the odds of this majestic piece of earth overlooking the Pacific Ocean ever again hosting the event at those equal to McCain or Obama conceding before November.

USGA officials are wicked this way when it comes to their most prestigious tournament. They prefer pain over pleasure. They usually desire a primary cut with more weed than a Berkeley dorm room and pray for greens harder than Earnie Shavers’ head. They view punching out as some sort of wonderful tactic.

They secretly smile when balls fly through the air and bounce over greens like your child’s Super Ball off concrete. You hear the words kikuyu, poa annua and rye and think of a new sandwich at the local deli. The USGA hears them and envisions fantastic, romantic scenes of Tiger Woods hacking his way out of something resembling an Iowa cornfield.

"The course is absolutely where we want it," USGA vice president Jim Hyler said Wednesday. "It is absolutely dialed in."

I’m guessing his fingers and toes were crossed.

The truth: Those who set up the South Course at Torrey Pines panicked and are now hoping to be saved by the same Mother Nature who put the fear of red numbers into them.

June Gloom around here either means overcast morning skies with mild temperatures or the reaction to San Diego State coeds replacing shorts and sun dresses with sweats, but it is a nightmare in the eyes of those hoping to make the Open another slow, troublesome, risky, hazardous venture for those playing.

In assuming the sun would shine brightly early and often and greens would be baked this week into a surface much like your driveway, officials grew the primary cut of rough to only 21/2 inches. Last year at Oakmont, it was 5 in some places.

Put it this way: Adam Scott was a no-show for his scheduled news conference Wednesday, but I doubt it had anything to do with him getting lost in any patches of tall grass.

Deep rough to the Open is typically azalea flowers to the Masters, sponsor logos to NASCAR, Big Brad the friendly cellmate to Tim Donaghy. It’s automatic.

But in a practice round Tuesday, Bubba Watson hit driver out of the primary cut at an Open, which would be like Kobe Bryant purposely scoring a basket for the Celtics tonight. It just doesn’t happen.

So when you combine lower rough with greens that, while slick and speedy, have remained softer than preferred under all those early clouds, you have the potential of Jim Furyk at Olympia Fields in Chicago in 2003.

Of someone shooting 8 under to win the Open.

"The fairways have a bit of width to them," said Geoff Ogilvy, the Open winner in 2006 at Winged Foot. "The rough is playable in spots. I thought the rough might be higher. The greens are fast but not absurd. If someone really has a good week, I could see someone going pretty low."

Maybe not. Torrey Pines won’t play like the hellish journey that was Winged Foot and then Oakmont last year (where the winners each shot 5 over for the tournament), but it is still the longest Open course in history at 7,643 yards, and you still have six holes with tee options that could range from difficult to ridiculous.

Already, Phil Mickelson ripped the USGA’s decision to extend the tee box on the par-5 13th and force players to carry 250 yards over a canyon. There is also a chance wind could pick up off those sweeping cliffs where hang-gliders soar. More gusts. More sun and less mist. Things could still get a lot tougher, which they appeared to do Wednesday.

It just won’t be nearly as harsh as the USGA first imagined.

"Cutting the rough low backfired on them now that the greens aren’t near as hard as they hoped," said Tod Leonard, longtime golf writer for the San Diego Union-Tribune. "June Gloom is killing them.

"The people at Torrey Pines don’t want someone winning like Furyk did at Olympia Fields, because no one is talking about going back there any time soon. A score like that wouldn’t bode well for Torrey in the future."

Bubba Watson hit driver out of the primary cut during a U.S. Open practice round. Amazing.

Someone get a red number ready for the winner Sunday.

Ed Graney’s column is published Sunday, Wednesday, Thursday and Saturday. He can be reached at 383-4618 or egraney@reviewjournal.com.

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