The expression, ''He's just an old softy,'' has never applied to the United States Golf Association, but preparations for the 100th U.S. Open seem to have brought out the USGA's tender side.
After a media preview of the Pebble Beach Golf Links last week, Open chairman Paul Spengler said, ''I have never heard more complaints about NO rough at Pebble Beach than I have in the last three or four hours.''
And, truly, the rough was nowhere near as penal as it was before, and certainly during, the U.S. Amateur last August, when a player who missed the fairway had no option but to wedge his way back in before attacking the green. There were jokes, of course, that the USGA would now deflate the tires on the mowers until June 19, the day after the big event wraps up.
But in fact USGA director of competitions Tom Meeks said players can expect the rough to be a good two inches shorter, at 3 inches, than it was for the 1992 Open won by Tom Kite.
''In past Opens, we've had the rough so high that players pretty much had to take a sand wedge just get the ball back to the fairway,'' said Meeks. ''Yes, you're rewarding the player who hit the fairway and penalizing the player who missed. But after last year and with the way the players responded to the conditions at Pinehurst, we concluded that we want players to be tempted to shoot for the green.''
Meeks is the same official who set that infamous side hill pin placement (''hole location,'' the USGA wants us to call it) on No. 18 at the Olympic Club two years ago when putts not hit hard enough would roll back at the players. He's also the same official who apologized for the unfair result, and who ultimately won the respect of Payne Stewart for his willingness to listen.
Which isn't to say he's putty in players' hands. Meeks recalls arguing with Stewart over reducing par on Pinehurst's 16th hole from 5 to 4 for the 1999 Open, an argument Meeks clearly won when Stewart said, ''You're impossible,'' and walked away.
That Sunday, Stewart made 4 on the hole with a long, tough putt that meant every bit as much as the par putt that ultimately clinched the championship for him on 18.
Stewart's winning score was just 1-under par, which reflects the USGA's goal of protecting par. Meeks doesn't expect that to change much with 2 inches.
''It may sound like we're making it easier, but to be honest, we're not,'' he said. ''We've just discovered a new challenge for players. Rather than giving them an automatic pitchout, we've given them a choice.''
It's not much of a choice, because the tiny greens at Pebble are so firm that they will hold only the perfectly played shot, most likely from only the most perfect lie. And by June 12, the greens will be rolling at about 11.6 on the Stimpmeter, not the 9.5 that seemed swift enough last week.
So this generous new ''choice'' offered by the USGA may amount to little more than a slowdown in play, while the players wait for the smoke to clear between their ears.
ONE-PUTTS: The USGA accepted a record 8,457 entries for the Open; 400 were rejected because the entrant had played poorly in past qualifying rounds or had an index higher than 1.4 ... The Web site for the U.S. Open has opened, at www.usopen.com ... At the Masters, Byron Nelson thanked Tiger Woods for putting his 54-year-old winning streak back in the news recently. The Golf Channel casts more light on Nelson and his accomplishments with an original documentary, ''Byron Nelson: A Texas Gentleman,'' premiering May 9. James Garner, who once partnered with Nelson in an exhibition tournament, does the narration ... As if we needed one, from the PGA Tour comes this reason NOT to practice putting: The top three putters (Mike Springer, Russ Cochran and Rick Fehr) rank 148th, 63rd and 81st on the money list. The top three total drivers (Woods, David Duval and Hal Sutton) rank first, eighth and second.
Distributed by Scripps Howard News Service.