The 2002 West Coast swing concludes with next week's Match Play Championship, but don't put your tray table in its upright and locked position. The battle for California—the competition to see which of the state's courses will get the 2008 U.S. Open—is just heating up.
The contestants, separated by 70 miles and seven days on the PGA Tour schedule, are Torrey Pines, the municipal course near San Diego on which last week's Buick Invitational was played, and Riviera, the exclusive country club that's the site of this week's Nissan (a.k.a. Los Angeles) Open. Publicly the two parties deny the rivalry, but clearly the battle has been joined. Both courses brought in big-name designers for expensive makeovers. Rees Jones, known as the Open Doctor for his frequent prep-pings of major championship venues, did a $3-3 million, Joan Rivers-sized redo on Torrey Pines's South course. Tom Fazio gave Riviera a Greta Van Susteren-like facial-subtle yet significant—for an estimated $2.3 million. Both courses also sent representatives to the USGA's annual meeting earlier this month to lobby for the Open, which is almost certain to be on the West Coast in 2008. Riviera, though, has gone a step further in attempting to cozy up to the USGA by hiring publicist Karen Moraghan, wife of Tim Moraghan, the influential director of championship agronomy for the USGA, as well as retaining as a consultant Paul Latshaw, a USGA favorite who was the course superintendent at Congressional when that club held the 1997 Open.
Although 2008 seems a long way off, the Open already has been assigned to Midwestern and Eastern locations through 2007, and the loser of the bake-off will probably have to wait until 2013 or later to get another chance. That's because the Open is likely to return to Pebble Beach before the end of the decade, and the USGA is reluctant to hold the tournament in California three times in four or five years.
There were signs last week that Torrey Pines might be the leader in the clubhouse. Tom Meeks, the USGA's senior director of rules and competitions, was seen strolling the course, and the pros were effusive in their praise of it. "They could hold an Open here tomorrow," said third-round coleader Jerry Kelly. Added Jay Williamson, who aced the South's 3rd hole last Saturday, "Torrey Pines is as good or better than Pebble Beach, and much harder."
No question, the South course plays stronger than Shaq. At 7,607 yards it's longer than any other course on Tour, with three of the par-4s at least 475 yards. "The [477-yard] 15th is a great hole," says Kelly, "but moving that tee back was sadistic."
The average score on the South was 73.6 over the first two rounds, almost four shots higher than the North (69.7), the other 18 used during the first two days of the tournament. "There's nothing on Tour that plays this long," Chris Smith, one of the circuit's big hitters, said of the South. "You really have to smash it around and hope you're hitting it straight. If you had some wind to go with U.S. Open rough, you might as well pack a lunch, because you're going to be here all day."
The seven-under 65 shot by tournament winner Jos� Mar�a Olaz�bal on Sunday was the second-lowest score of the week on the South ( Greg Chalmers had a 63 in the final round) despite four days of relative calm. Olaz�bal's total of 13-under 275 matched the highest by a winner since 1993. By comparison, only six of the past eight champions had a score worse than 18 under. Torrey was so tough that three-time Buick winner Phil Mickelson missed the cut, while Tiger Woods shot a 77 at the South on Friday—his worst score in three years—and had to rally with a birdie on the 36th hole to extend his consecutive cut streak to 81. "The USGA wants to get its foot on your throat and never let you up," says Peter Jacobsen, the '95 Buick champ who came in 58th last week. "They've built 18 finishing holes here."
In fact, one of the most noticeable changes was to the par-5 18th, which is now 571 yards—73 longer than last year—and no longer a driver, seven-iron two-shotter. Although John Daly reached the new green in two in the third round (amazingly, with an iron), few players attempted to carry Devlin's Billabong, the water hazard fronting the green. "Mark my words, they'll play the 18th as a par-4 for a U.S. Open," Kelly says. To do so, all the USGA would have to do is move up the tee so that the hole is 500 yards. That would make it about the same as the 18th at Atlanta Athletic Club, a hole that created so much drama at last August's PGA Championship when David Toms laid up, then had to get up and down for par to win.
As the players will see this week, Riviera is more of a beast now too. Fazio restored elements of George Thomas's 1926 design, such as the sprawling bunker that occupies 35 yards of fairway near the landing area on the left side of the par-4 7th hole. An alternate fairway at the par-4 8th, lost during a flood in 1939, was rebuilt, offering another route to a green that has been enlarged to its original size. New tee boxes for five holes (numbers 5, 8, 9, 12 and 13) have added 207 yards, stretching the Riv to 7,157, but, says Tour veteran Jay Haas, "one of Fazio's guys told me they drew up a plan to build tees way back, so Riviera could play 7,600 yards if needed."
Riviera already has one of the best finishing holes in golf, an uphill par-4 that curls right and ends in an amphitheater (during a rainy playoff at last year's Nissan Open, some players used three-woods for their second shots), but more important, the course is the game's very own History Channel. Past champions at Riviera, which first hosted the LA Open in 1929, include Ben Hogan, Sam Snead, Byron Nelson, Tom Watson and Johnny Miller. The course has been known as Hogan's Alley ever since the Hawk won two L.A. Opens and the 1948 U.S. Open there in the span of 17 months.