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May 4, 2009

Mike Davis

MIKE DAVIS: A few general comments on Bethpage, comparing it to other U.S. Open courses. One of the challenging things about our championships is that we move them around to different venues every year, and it certainly makes logistics tough, because you are trying to figure out things that you don't quite know. You try to anticipate things.
First is, if it's an event that's at the same venue over and over every year, you tend to get - if something is not right one year, you get it right next year. Well, we don't have that opportunity.
So it does present its challenges, but on the flipside, it also makes it exciting, because we don't get here every year. I think the level of excitement is higher.
So, with that, when I think about Bethpage as a U.S. Open course, and how it compares to a Winged Foot or a Shinnecock Hills or a Pebble Beach or Pinehurst or so on, I would start off by saying that this U.S. Open venue is going to be long. This is going to be one where a player is absolutely going to be able to have to move the ball out. He's going to have to hit approach shots that are high and soft.
My guess is that at this U.S. Open, you'll see the average player here use his driver a minimum of eight times, and that doesn't always happen in U.S. Opens because of the penalty for hitting it off-line. But here, you've got to use driver, so you can come into some of these greens with something less than 3-wood.
Another thing that's unique to Bethpage is if you go around it -- and I know many in the room have played it and they know it -- but if you start thinking about it, Bethpage is not one of those golf courses where you're able to bounce the ball into the greens very often.
So many of the greens either sit up in the air or there's rough and bunkers in front of the green, that somebody who's going to do well at Bethpage has got to be able to fly the ball to the green and have it stop. And that's not always the case. Certainly out at Shinnecock Hills, which favors more of the bump-and-run play, but here, it's going to be more of an aerial-type play.
Another thing unique to Bethpage is that probably eight, nine of the greens you can't really see from the drive zone. So you are hitting into something where you can't see the putting surface, or in some cases, you only see the top half of the flagstick, and that certainly offers up some additional challenge because the player just can't see quite what he's doing.
Another thing unique to Bethpage is its big, deep bunkers. So players in this championship are going to encounter some bunker shots, whether they are in the drive zone or around the greens, that they typically would not get at a U.S. Open. It's not uncommon at Bethpage to get a 30- to 40-yard bunker shot around the green.
You say to yourself, well, the player is never going to be that far away. Well, if they are in the rough, they could be. So, very challenging bunkers. As U.S. Opens go, these are probably about the most challenging we have.
Another thing, this was an issue that was brought up in 2002, but the putting greens for the most part relative to other U.S. Open courses are pretty flat. Do not make the mistake of thinking these greens are flat; they are not. What we are able to do when you have flatter greens is get the green speeds faster. I do think in general you see these greens are a bit less undulating and a bit more level than most.
So I think that it's fair to say that you're probably going to see a few more putts made at this U.S. Open than other U.S. Opens, because the greens roll so true, and again, there are not a lot of humps and bumps like a Winged Foot or an Oakmont.
Getting into some golf course setup and our philosophy, [USGA Vice President] Jim Hyler mentioned a little bit earlier about some of the things that we are trying to do. Well, first and foremost, and it's been this way, if you go back and you look in history books and so on, when we started this championship in 1895, it's always been a very difficult championship to play in. That's part of its trademark. We do not want to lose that.
We want it to be in theory the toughest test of golf the players see all year long, and that's in every aspect. We want it to be tough whether it's putting, driving the ball, approach shots to the green, recovery from around the greens and the bunkers, and so on. But at the same time, obviously we want it to be a fair test. And by that, really what we are saying is that we want the player, if he executes the proper shot, to be rewarded. And if he hits a mediocre shot, then he's going to end up with a mediocre result, and if he hits a bad shot, we want him to be penalized, and that's the trick.
Having said that, since we do set it up to where it's this difficult, believe me, folks -- and I'm sorry for those of you who brought your sticks and are not going to see it this afternoon -- it is a brutally difficult golf course. But at the same time, we are very mindful of making sure that it doesn't become too tough. And by that, if a player executes a good shot and is penalized, we don't want that. We've seen it a few times in the past, and believe me, that's not something the USGA wants.
Jim Hyler mentioned that a few years ago, even though we want the U.S. Open to be the toughest test of the year, we did sit down and talk about some of the philosophies of the setup, and we did make some changes.
First, where it's possible from an architectural standpoint or setup standpoint, we want to introduce more risk/reward, and that doesn't necessarily mean that it's going to be an easier test of golf. It simply means where we can do it, we want to give the players a choice. Do you want to play conservative, or do you want to be more aggressive? And if you go to the latter and you pull it off, we want you to be rewarded with a birdie, perhaps even an eagle. But if you do try it, and you don't pull it off, we want to see you penalized. And I think that everybody, whether it is the players, the fans, or those of you in the room in the media, everybody enjoys that.
I think that even for just the normal round of golf for everybody, you kind of like that risk/reward. So where possible, we are trying to introduce that.
There are a few holes at Bethpage where you can absolutely do that, maybe by moving tee markers up, introducing a more challenging hole location, or because we have made a few changes with certain holes to make it a little more risk/reward. We saw that certainly last year at Torrey Pines: There were a few holes that they could take a gamble on, and if they did it well, hopefully they were rewarded.
A few other philosophical things, certain aspects of the U.S. Open in the past that we wanted to make more consistent. In other words, they were inconsistent that we wanted to see more consistent. Some aspects that were very consistent that we wanted to make more inconsistent.
And by that, I would say that we used to to gradually make the golf course harder each day of the event, so when players would arrive on Monday for practice rounds, you might have the green speeds at 11.5, and by the end on Sunday they might have been 13. So they were playing a different golf course. We may have not mown the rough for the rest of the week so all of the sudden each day the rough keeps getting harder and harder. Maybe we use less water on the greens, so each day they get firmer and firmer, and when you put these all together you have a golf course that at the beginning of the week is not really like it is at the end of the week.
Some of that we are trying to make more consistent. Whether it's firmness of the greens, speed of the greens, I think from a player's standpoint, they want to know that, hey, the 12th green is rolling the same speed as the 14th green, and they want to know if they hit a shot into a green, the 5th for example, and the ball reacts a certain way in terms of firmness; that when they hit it to the 6th green, it will do the same thing.
We have done some things with firmness, for example. Scientists in our Research and Test Center have developed what they call the TruFirm device, which actually measures the firmness of the turf surface, whether it's a putting green or a fairway or an approach area, and this has been a tremendous tool in terms of knowing what areas might need more water than other areas.
So at U.S. Opens now you truly have a scenario where one green may get more water than another, and trying to make them consistent. It's something that, believe me, by walking on a green or hitting balls to a green, you would not know this. That's something where we are trying to make it more consistent.
There are other areas where we have tried to say, hey, let's make it more inconsistent. An example would be a few years ago, when we were getting to the point where the roughs were so thick and so consistent that every single time you got your ball in the rough, you knew what you had. It was the same lie everywhere.
So we sent out a memo a couple of years ago to the superintendent saying, if what you think we want is thick, perfectly consistent rough; you've erred in your thinking there. We want some inconsistencies. So where a player gets in the rough, he looks down and has to figure out what's going to happen with that lie. So, introducing different shots. We actually think that takes more skill to do that.
Another thing is we are mixing up teeing grounds now. That's a wonderful addition to the U.S. Open, where we can really showcase some of the architecture and give the players more choices, because we think part of the U.S. Open test is course management. In other words, the mental side of it.
So a player gets up to a teeing ground that he didn't even expect us to use. He didn't practice there. He's got to think about it right when he gets there, it's almost impromptu course management.
As I said, the other by-product of this is we are able to use perhaps a more aggressive hole location that we would not use from a long tee, but if we move the tee markers up, we might be able to do that, so that's been good.
In terms of the specifics of the golf course setup, the putting greens as I mentioned, we will have them very fast for this U.S. Open. They will be somewhere in the range of 13 1/2 and 14 1/2 half on the Stimpmeter.
Now in terms of U.S. Opens, that's right up there almost at the top, and I think Craig [Currier, Bethpage golf superintendent] would confirm that on Sunday of the 2002 U.S. Open, they were in the mid 14s, but our plan this go-around is whatever number we pick, it's going to be that way from Monday through Sunday.
I think for the most part, these greens can handle that speed with one exception, any of you who have played the course, you know the 15th green has a lot of slope on it. In fact, I've woken up a couple of times in a cold sweat at night thinking about the 15th green, and I suspect it won't be the last time I wake up in a cold sweat.
Graduated rough, we will do that again. Most of the holes will have like a 20-food width of what we call the first cut of primary rough. That will be somewhere around the neighborhood of 2 1/2 inches, but that's what we have set on. We walked the course yesterday with Craig. We essentially set that number up until the week before the U.S. Open. We'll just see how it comes in. If we are real dry at that point and the rough becomes less dense we may bump it up, but we may bump it down. That's kind of the goal.
When you get beyond that 20 feet, you will get into something more like 4 to 6 inches of rough. Jim mentioned it before, but our whole intent with this graduated rough is not only to better fit the crime, or the penalty with the crime, but also we think that with this, particularly the shorter rough, it really allows the best players to show their skills.
Anybody, even if I have the ability to hack out of thick rough, but I don't necessarily have the ability to hit some of the shots that some of these players have out of lighter rough that's going to get some grass between the clubhead and the ball. So that is kind of how we prepare the rough, that it is almost a day-by-day thing leading right up to the U.S. Open.
Something a little bit different that we do that you do not see week-to-week is we really do try to make the bunkers hazards. Week-to-week, I would say the players love to get in bunkers at a tour event; they are not going to want to be in the bunkers at Bethpage. We purposely soften up the sand so that they get less spin out of it. And, yes, sometimes they do get a fried egg [lie], which we happen to think is still part of the game of golf that you have to figure out how to get yourself out of.
But it was really refreshing, last year for the first time I heard where a player comes [to the U.S. Open] and said: "I don't want to get in the bunkers this week I actually have a better ability to recover from around the greens in the grass than in the bunkers." And that's the first time, at least since I've been on staff for 19 years, I ever heard that. Again, bunkers were supposed to be hazards, and I think we are getting them back a little closer to what that means.
I mentioned firmness before. If we are lucky enough from Mother Nature, we will get a firm Bethpage. For the most part, this golf course drains exceptionally well because it's a sandy, loose soil. And if we get that, then we can control the firmness by how much watering we do. And really, along with wind, firmness is the other element of the game that really separates the great players from the good players, because you have to think about what happens when your ball lands instead of just throwing darts everywhere.
I'm going to close up with the question, "What are the differences between Bethpage 2002 and Bethpage in 2009?" I would preface it by saying we had such a wonderful Open in 2002 that our mind-set was really, let's come back to Bethpage and essentially play the same golf course. And that really is what we are doing.
But like we do every time when we go to a venue and come back, we say, "What could we have done better, and what did not work quite right? So I think the changes would be, we are going to graduate the rough. We are going to, for the most part, you'll see a slightly less dense rough and you will see it, as I mentioned, graduated; you also see some new teeing grounds. There are five new teeing grounds out there this go-around that we did not have in 2002 which have added -- we went from 7,214 yards in 2002 up to 7,426 this year.
So we have added a little over 200 yards, and you might say, "Wait a minute, USGA, I thought that the golf ball, you basically had under control, and I didn't think the drivers were going any further..." And for the most part, that's true. We are essentially playing pretty much the same game in 2009 that we were playing in 2002, but the reason we did that is we think that in a few cases here, it actually adds to a hole and it gives us more flexibility that we can maybe use a back tee some days and an up tee some days.
In addition, I think that when Rees Jones looked at it from an architectural standpoint, we thought on a few of those holes that we could add a new tee and it either brought the architecture back to the way (A.W.) Tillinghast wanted it or it added some other element to make the course better.
I'm going to go through and maybe mention 11 holes and some of the changes.
No. 3, a par 3, there's a new tee there, added roughly 25 yards. That's going to be our long par 3 for the event.
No. 4 is the par 5, which when you think of Bethpage, that's the hole that so many people think about. If there's such thing as a signature hole, I suppose the fourth hole at Bethpage would be the signature hole. It's a wonderful, wonderful par 5 that will be one of the easier holes for the U.S. Open. One of the things we felt was not quite right in 2002 was that behind the green was a closely mown area that fell away from the green, and we didn't see many players going for the green in two, simply because there was way too much risk for the reward. So that closely mown area has been softened a little bit, and the trees behind that green, there were some white pines that were removed. So you don't have near the backdrop, and I think the 4th hole is going to be a tremendously exciting hole for the Open.
No. 5, there was a new tee added that went back about 25 yards that will bring the Tillinghast cross-bunker off the tee much more into play than it did in 2002.
No. 6 is a relatively short par 4. It's 408 yards. One of the things that the USGA did before the 2002 Open was install rough on the hillside of that hole. So really what it ended up doing was cutting off the drive zone short. We decided to do a 180 on that this go-around, and so we restored the fairway going down the hill. And what we hope to see are players making a choice, either laying up to the end of the fairway and having a mid-iron to maybe an 8-iron, or trying to drive it the whole way down to the bottom of the hill and having nothing more than a relatively simple pitch. But it's narrow at the bottom, so we have given a choice on that.
No. 7, a new tee was added and we are now at 525 yards as a par 4. That's long. We felt in 2002 that that hole did not play quite right, and this new teeing ground would move slightly players left. We also doubled the width of the fairway there to really say, "hey, this is a driver hole, go ahead and hit it hard, try to cut the dogleg, if you like," but they are going to have a long approach in.
The way the fairway contour was in 2002, I think you saw many players, even though the hole was roughly 490 yards, hitting 3-woods because they could not keep the ball in the fairway. We think that change is good. It is worth noting that if you look at the scorecard, we have now added a par 4 that's 525 yards, which is the longest par 4 in U.S. Open history, but the 4th hole is 517 yards; it's a par 5. So we actually have a par 4 playing longer than a par 5, and you might say, "what is the USGA thinking?" It really all goes back to what the definition of par is, how many strokes it takes expert players to get to the green plus two putts, and we don't think many of the players will end up on the fourth green in the two shots. So that's the reason for the difference.
No. 8, the par 3 with the pond in front, I think there's pretty big change on this one. The green was brought down right to the pond's edge, and we looked back at some old photographs of when Tillinghast first designed the course, and that's the way the green used to be. So for this go-around we will have a couple hole locations right down at the front that very much brings the pond into play, and really, you would have to hit a horrendous shot in '02 to hit it in the pond. It's in play now.
We will probably not use the back teeing ground for every day. When the hole is up, we will probably bring the tee markers down to one of the forward tees and really say to the players: "Listen, do you want to go for it? And if you do, and you don't hit the right shot, you'll end up in the pond; or if you want to play conservative back to the middle of the green, then you'll have a very tough two-putt coming down the hill." So it is exciting.
And that hole, it may play anywhere from a 135-yard shot to, if we use the back tee with a back hole location, closer to 230 yards, so you almost have a 100-yard swing on that par 3.
No. 9 is probably the biggest change we have made at Bethpage. There was a tee put some 40 yards back that really changed the drive zone. Nine was the easiest hole, easiest par 4, for the 2002 U.S. Open. We did not necessarily change the hole just because it was the easiest. We changed it because we thought that it would give some options in terms of trying to drive over the left bunker. It's almost a cross-bunker up top, and leave yourself with a wedge, very easy wedge in, or try to hit it to the right of this bunker and be on a very sloping fairway. So nine is a big change, and some of us are anxious to see how it does play because there are some question marks there.
No.10 got a lot of comments back in 2002 because that was the hole on the second round, particularly in the morning round, where [some] players could not reach the fairway. So the fairway was brought back some 35 yards to ensure that that does not happen again. In addition, we put a closely mown area over the putting green, which we think is going to give the players some additional options with the short game.
No. 12, that was also one hole that we did not think played right, certainly the players didn't think it did. So we changed the fairway contour there where we brought fairway right up against that left cross-bunker on the drive. So if you drive it over that bunker now, you are going to hit fairway. In 2002, you would have landed in the rough, so we think that hole is going to play better.
No.13, the par 5, there was a new tee added, which adds almost 60 yards to the hole. And the reason that was done is Rees Jones felt -- and we certainly agree with him on this -- that it would bring the original Tillinghast cross-bunkers back into play, and certainly we'll do that. So that should end up still being one of the easier holes, but at 605 yards, it will have some challenge, and we do still plan to use for a day or two the original tee that we used in 2002, at 550 yards or somewhere around in there.
No. 14: Last but not least, the last change at least of note that we made was that the 14th green was basically enlarged. This had nothing to do with the U.S. Open. It really had to do with getting more hole locations for day-to-day play, so it was really an agronomic decision. But I will tell you a byproduct of that change is that we have got three great hole locations that we never had in 2002, two in the back tier, and in the front there's a front left lobe that is really dynamic that will be probably a pitching wedge, but a tough one, at that.
And the last thing of note about the changes is that in general, we are playing wider fairways than we did in 2002. Some of them are dramatically so. There are probably five holes out there that we very much changed the fairway contour to try to make more sense of the architecture and bring more bunkers into play.
Even beyond that, I would say the fairways for this Open are probably three to five yards on average wider than we saw before, and I just think in a lot of cases, it brings the bunkers more into play, and probably it's a better test of golf.
In closing, I'll reiterate what Jim Hyler said: We have no target score. In fact, we are not good enough, if we said we wanted even par to win, we are not good enough to do that. But what we are really hoping for is a very, very tough test, an exciting test, a fair test of golf, and whether 10-under wins or 10 over wins, we're fine with it. We had the Pebble Beach Open in 2000 where Tiger absolutely ran away with the event and finished at 12-under, that was one of our favorite Opens, and he shot a record there. So we are not against low scores necessarily.
Last, I would like to thank everybody in the room for the support and certainly thank those of you who live in New York for sharing your golf course with us. It should be a marvelous, marvelous championship, and we are excited to come back.

Q. The description of Bethpage is long; can a shorter player or medium-length player win?
MIKE DAVIS: I think the answer is "Yes," to that, but that player is really going to have to be on his game. One of the neat things about the Open I mentioned is that there are different courses for different horses, and we are going to go to Merion in 2013. That golf course is going to be roughly 6,900 yards. Does that take away the advantage for the long players? I don't think so.
But in this case, you look back to Torrey Pines last year that on the scorecard read 7,600 in change. In fairness we did not play it quite that long every day, and nor will we play Bethpage 7,426 every day. But Rocco Mediate made the playoff. He is one of the shorter players on Tour. So I think a shorter player can certainly do well and even win here.
But having said that, the way that Bethpage greens are, that so many of them are protected in front by bunkers and rough, where you can't run a ball into it, that I think it's going to take a shorter- to medium-length player who's hitting all of the fairways and is really on with his approach shots.
Question was, I mentioned risk/reward, and how we're trying to introduce of more of it here, and what you're really asking is, "Are there any drivable par 4s at Bethpage?" And the answer is "no."
We don't anticipate that we will have any risk/reward - drivable par 4s at Bethpage. It just does not lend itself to it. We do not want to force the issue from an architectural standpoint. But there are plenty of other places where we can introduce it.
As an example, the fourth hole, the par 5, I think we will force the issue there. If we don't see enough players going for the green in two from the back tee, we'll just move the tee up. We did that at 18 at Torrey Pines last year. We kept shoving tee markers up.
The 8th hole, par 3, that I mentioned with the front hole locations right up against the water with the closely mown area that I think there, that's a classic risk/reward, saying, "Do you want to try to hit your wedge, 9- and 8-iron right to it?" And they are clearly good enough to, but if they land on the green with too much spin, they can spin back in the water; and if they land short it's going to go back in the water. So they could play safe and hit it 10 yards beyond the flagstick, but now they have a tough putt coming down.
I think the 14th green, the par 3, is going to be another one. With those hole locations, the hole is only 158 yards to the back, so depending on the hole location, there will be some wedges, 9s in there and they are going to have to ask themselves: "Do I want to try to go for that flag or not?" In other words, Do I want to just accept a 3 or try to make a 2, but maybe in doing so, maybe a four along the way.
There are some risk/reward drives out there. I think the 9th hole the way it is, that it's a classic risk/reward off the teeing ground that even from the very back teeing ground, it's about a 285-yard carry in the air to carry that bunker.
So there's maybe a third of the players in the field who will be able to do that. And if they do it, the reward is because they have nothing much from a pitching wedge from a flat lie that they can see it, but if they don't make it, they are going to -- it's not going to be good. (Laughter).
There are several places like that where we have risk/reward and several places without having a drivable par 4 that we can do it.
Six would be another example that we may move tee markers up there that [asks], "Do you want to try to drive it to the bottom of the hill?" It's a tough shot, blind; you can't see it, but if you pull it off, you have nothing more than a flip shot, and you certainly bring birdie, a very good chance; or you want to lay way back and really for the most part you are not going to see as many birdies from back there.
We went through the course, Jim Hyler and myself, and looked at it and tried to say on each hole, "What can we do to make the hole more exciting" By the way, when you are making these risk/rewards, you are not necessarily making them easier. You are simply getting choices in letting the players figure it out themselves.

Q. Mike, the change to a consistent setup day-to-day over the course of the entire tournament seems to represent a major philosophical shift for the USGA. Does that mean that the players will be facing a more difficult challenge earlier in the week than they have in previous tournaments?
MIKE DAVIS: Okay, great question there. Yes, we have made a philosophical change in that respect, because there used to be a time at the U.S. Open, all things being equal in terms of weather you might get, and we know, obviously, if you get tough weather, high winds, that makes it harder. But there used to be a philosophy that on Thursday, Friday, just get the rounds done, make the cut, and then make it tougher on the weekend.
So what usually happened because the rough wasn't cut, the greens tended to get faster, the greens tended to get firmer; that Thursday was easier than Friday, Friday was easier than Saturday and Saturday was easier than Sunday. And we really have changed that. If anything, Jim Hyler and I feel strongly that if anything, we're probably taking our foot off the accelerator come the final day on Sunday. We purposely did that last year at Torrey Pines, and you saw I think Sunday represented the easiest setup of the four days, and we happen to like it.
It doesn't mean we are going to make an easy U.S. Open. It means that where we can introduce some of the more excitement on the golf course, we like that. Everybody seems to like that. So I would say that Sunday might be just a hair easier than Thursday or Friday.

Q. Is there something about the 15th green that you specifically lose sleep over? Do you worry that it could become unputtable?
MIKE DAVIS: On the 15th green, it is by far the slopiest green on the golf course. It's got a kind of lower front area with a big ridge running through it, and then the back, really, the back portion of the green is the only place we can put the hole location. All four hole locations will be relatively close to one another.
So if there is a green at Bethpage that we would let get out of hand, and we wouldn't let it, but if it did get out of hand it would be the 15th hole, and believe me, we watched it like a hawk in 2002, and we will be watching it like a hawk.
But it is much more severe than the other 17 greens at Bethpage. It's like the first green at Winged Foot. You look at that green, it's so out of character for the other 17 greens in terms of the severity of it, we treated that one absolutely -- in fact, that one we treated much differently than the other 17, but we will just be very mindful of the 15th so it doesn't get out of hand.

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