Does this rough look U.S. Open scary? Phil Mickelson's not so sure. Excitement, uncertainty replace the usual U.S. Open doom and gloom for Tiger Woods, Phil Mickelson at Torrey Pines

LA JOLLA, Calif. - The first thing you notice at Torrey Pines - besides how the United States Golf Association must have a team of scientists and engineers working around the clock to never-endingly increase the possible size of white tents sturdier than most Arkansas homes - is the rough.

Or, more accurately, how not scary, how un-U.S. Open-like, the rough can look in certain places. It appears downright puny compared to the flowing, towering grass you saw at Shinnecock in 2004 or the gnarly stuff at Oakmont last year. Walk Torrey Pines South in all its U.S. Open glory, and the much-discussed kikuyu grass rough hardly jumps out as the biggest bully on the block.

"I could hit out of this stuff, man," one fan smirked as he easily walked through the grass behind the ropes well off the 18th fairway with little shoe friction.

Okay, he couldn't hit out of it, but the point's still unmistakable. This is why a U.S. Open with relatively low scores has fast become the trendy forecast of the moment at Southern California's most famous muni. Torrey Pines Superintendent Chief Mark Woodward started it all by predicting that the winner would finish around even par in an exclusive interview with last week. Then, never one to miss a chance to make waves, NBC Commentator Johnny Miller, Mr. 63 himself, jumped in and declared that he believes the champion will finish four under.

What's next? Somebody whining that these U.S. Opens have nothing on the Memphis St. Jude?

Not so fast, Phil Mickelson counters. Not so fast.

"There's no way to go low here," Mickelson said. "No way.

"And the reason is the greens are not soft. They're firm. ... You can't attack pins from the center of the green. You have to attack them straight on. And coming in with mid irons or long irons, there's no way to get the ball stopped close. Because of that, making birdies on a lot of these par 4s is not possible for the most part without making a 50, 60 footer."

Even Mickelson - who likes to tweak USGA setups the way Spike Lee likes to rile up Clint Eastwood - doesn't seem to have his heart in the doom-and-gloom forecast this week, though. He even conceded that "it looks like the most playable rough we've ever had in an Open." Throughout practice under largely overcast skies Tuesday, Mickelson often appeared near giddy at the possibilities this presented him.

"I feel like the better players have a better chance to separate themselves through skill as opposed to it being the very same penalty if you hit it in the rough and hack it out to the fairway no matter who you are," Mickelson said. "This gives guys who can really play a chance to hit creative shots, hooks and slices and maybe get it on the greens.

"It gives those guys a chance to separate themselves and shoot lower scores."

Of course, everyone knows that two of those guys will be playing together the first two days. The Tiger Woods-Phil Mickelson grouping (with world's No. 3 Adam Scott, the most forgotten third in history) is still drawing plenty of buzz, building up to their 8:06 a.m. PST Thursday tee time.

Which doesn't mean the other players in the field will ever admit to being fascinated by it.

"I just think that when you come to a tournament like this, a venue like this, there's way too much going on for you to worry about that kind of thing," surprise Masters champ Trevor Immelman said, shrugging.

Tiger Woods' U.S. Open doubts?

There seems to be more excitement than dread around this Open, though. Along with plenty of uncertainty. Mike Davis, the USGA's director of torment, may have purposely scaled back the rough, but at the same time, he's ratcheted up the wondering with all the different tee options that have been built into Torrey's Open setup.

Davis insists the different tees will be used, that the same hole will play wildly different on different days. He's just not saying when - which is playing with even Tiger's mind, and when's the last time you've heard Tiger admit to uncertainty swirling in his legendary tough steel trap?

"We've been trying to figure it out for the last few days," said Woods, who has already played Torrey Pines South four times since last Wednesday. "We don't know. How many days are they going to play it up on 13? How many days are they going it play it up on 14? Same on three. Are they going to keep us all the way back on six. We just don't know.

"If they play it up all the days, you'd say under par for sure. Play it back, then you'll probably say over par. But since it's a mixture, you don't know what it's going to be. And that's a little bit frustrating as a player, because you usually always have an idea what the score is going to be going into the event. But this year is different."

Tiger sounded much more confident when talking about the state of his knee, the one that's kept him out since the final round of the Masters, the one that required surgery. While revealing he still hasn't walked a full 18 holes since Augusta, the world's No. 1 dismissed it as an issue.

"No, I'll be fine," Woods said.

The other PGA Tour stars certainly aren't going to downgrade the chances of sports' most intimidating figure.

"Not at all," Sergio Garcia said when asked if the knee cast doubt on Tiger. "It's like Big Brown. With a crack, he was still the favorite."

When someone called out, "And where did Big Brown finish?" Garcia only chuckled.

"We'll see," he said. "We'll see."

That's the magic phrase at this unconventional U.S. Open of uncertainty.

June 11, 2008

Chris Baldwin keeps one eye on the PGA Tour and another watching golf vacation hotspots and letting travelers in on the best place to vacation.

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