Oak Hill is proving a tough nut to crack

A NUMBER of years ago, the then President of the USGA, Sandy Tatum, had a succinct response for the golfers complaining about the severity of a US Open venue.

"We are not trying to embarrass the best players in the world, we are trying to identify them," he said. That might well be the reaction this week to similar claims by today's elite golfers at Oak Hill.

The 7,134 yards, par 70 lay-out with fierce rough, narrow fairways and undulating greens has taken a severe toll and worse is predicted for the next couple of days as the course dries out in the scorching sun.

The peoples' favourite and joint overnight leader, Phil Mickelson, wasn't long in discovering just how difficult it was as he was rocked back on his heels by running up double bogeys at the 5th and 7th holes.

This and similar golfing disasters were a clear message that the slightest lapse in concentration will be severely punished, and there were many casualties. In one notable case the pain was self inflicted.

"I thought my tee time was 7.35," groaned Australian Aaron Baddeley after arriving on the first tee 25 seconds late, thus incurring a two shot penalty.

"My caddy and myself both got it wrong. An official ran to the practice green and told me they were counting down so I ran to the tee. I was annoyed walking down the first but the past is the past and you can't change that. It's the first time it has happened and the last."

Baddeley, who captured the Australian Open as a 19 year-old amateur in 1999, eventually finished in 77 for a six over par total, quite respectable given his unfortunate if unforgivable mistake.

David Duval, the 2001 Open champion called it a day complaining of a bad back. Slump is not a word much loved by golfers but it certainly applies to Duval who hasn't won a tournament since his triumph at Royal Lytham St Annes two years ago. He shot 79 on Thursday and was six over for yesterday's four holes before quitting.

One of the chief casualties is Davis Love III, much fancied after his fourth victory of the season at the International in Denver last week-end. He shot 75 for nine over and felt the course was very close to being unfair. "If you miss the fairway, it is almost a full shot penalty and that is pretty severe," he observed.

The brilliant South African Ernie Els has none of those problems and is homing in on his fourth major title. A level par 70 for one over would normally have left him in a happy frame of mind except he spoiled a superb day's work with a double bogey six at the 9th, his 18th hole.

As he commented: "I really wanted to get to red numbers by the end of the round. I almost did that. It's getting tricky. This could be one of the toughest courses we will play."

Very few would disagree but it's another matter whether it's the kind of golf fans come to see. They love birdies and they haven't been in plentiful supply.

The early pacesetter was little-known but experienced American Billy Andrade who added a 72 to Thursday's 67 to get to one under par.

Although two over for the day, Andrade claimed: "I'm pretty excited about my score. Hitting the fairway is a big concern. You can't just bomb it and think it's going to stop. When it lands, it's going somewhere."

"I got into the tournament as the last alternate. I haven't played well this year but as Ben Curtis proved in the British Open, anything is possible."

Given he is around 18 stone and nicknamed 'Lumpy', one would hardly expect Tim Herron to be leading a major championship in yesterday's 86 degrees. At two under through 12, however, he was tied with Masters champion Mike Weir with Mickelson on one under along with Kevin Sutherland and Billy Andrade.

However, keep an eye on Australian Adam Scott, completely the opposite to Herron. He shot 69 for one over and commented: "Par is going to start being a really good number. That may be about the winning score on Sunday. "

So the question once again is are they trying to embarrass or identify the best players!

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