Tiger Woods normally has a big advantage at Torrey Pines. As Tiger Woods-Phil Mickelson prize-fight pairing becomes reality, shorter hitters wonder if they're getting U.S. Open shaft

LA JOLLA, Calif. - The trophy caretaker handles with white-gloved care the hardware that the U.S. Open winner will hoist this Sunday. He sets the shiny silver cup on top of its black carrying case near the edge (but not too close to the edge) of one of Torrey Pines' famous cliffs to make it look all the more dramatic for the TV cameras.

It's look-but-don't-touch for both the professional photographers and regular golf fans who inevitably make their way over.

Of course, many of the shorter hitters in the field are starting to feel that trophy's forever out of reach for them too.

The prize-fight-worthy pairing of Tiger Woods and Phil Mickelson (with Adam Scott playing the third wheel) will have few problems with the distance of the longest U.S. Open course ever when they tee off at 8:06 a.m. PST with ESPN's cameras tracking every half smile or smirk. This is the heavyweight group of all heavyweight groups in an Open full of heavyweight groups (the top 12 players are all paired together in four threesomes).

But many feel Torrey Pines will show that pro golf's top events are more and more only about the heavyweight hitters, period.

It's about Woods and Mickelson and Scott bombing the ball all over the course, collecting oohs, aahs, countless annoying "You da man!" chants, and big trophy chances. Both Woods and Mickelson have professed their disdain for the new cliff-crammed tee that makes Torrey Pines' par 5 13th capable of playing as long as 614 yards.

But how do you think a guy like Zach Johnson, tied for 193rd on the PGA Tour in average driving distance, feels? If Woods feels like he's "almost on Black's Beach" on that tee, how must it appear to Johnson?

"You can't let it get into your mind," Johnson said.

Not if the guy who averages 269.3 yards off the tee wants to sleep at night. The sound of La Jolla's waves may be soothing, but they're not that soothing.

Tiger Woods vs. Phil Mickelson

This U.S. Open may give Woods and Mickelson their most evenly matched tournament-conditions ever. As Mickelson noted with the PGA Tour routinely placing one of them in the morning and one in the afternoon, almost as if it's ordained by the rules of golf, the world's No. 1 and No. 2 players often find themselves playing in completely different conditions the first two days of tournaments.

The wind's howling in the morning, it's sunny in the afternoon, etc., etc. ...

But even as the playing field is leveled for the top two players in the world, the shorter hitters - and that term's obviously very relative in pro golf - could be getting pushed farther away. With the rough at Torrey Pines looking shorter than anyone in this generation can remember at an Open, and getting trampled down more and more by spectators, the focus is once again shifting toward Torrey's length.

United States Golf Association Vice President Jim Hyler has noted that the golf course will not be played at its full U.S. Open possible, 7,643 yards, in any of the Open's four rounds. And he argued that even if was played at 7,643, that's only about 74 yards longer than Torrey Pines South played for the Buick Invitational in January.

Of course many lighter hitters regularly skip the Buick every year precisely because they think it's just too long. The fact that Woods won the Buick by eight shots this year, essentially playing a different tournament than everyone else, does not offer much comfort to distance mortals either.

"There's no way to disguise 7,600 yards," Jim Furyk, one the avowed Buick avoiders, said. "It's a big golf course, there's no doubt there."

Actually, there is some debate.

"We think driving accuracy will be important here," Hyler said. "As I mentioned, you get in that first primary cut of rough and you can get anything (in terms of lies). I think the medium hitters can certainly be in the game and the driving accuracy will be important.

"This course will simply not play as long as it does for the Buick."

Back on the range, Johnson surprisingly agreed (mostly). The man who famously won the 2007 Masters by laying up on every single par 5 at Augusta National has talked about the USGA getting it right a year after he was almost as vocal - but not nearly as high profile - a critic of Oakmont as Mickelson.

"It's great to hit it a long way," Johnson said. "But it's better to hit it in the fairway."

Woods didn't spend much time at all at Torrey Pines on Wednesday. He'd already played the course four times in six days by mid-Tuesday morning - sharp contrast to a Sergio Garcia, who didn't even set eyes on the Open-revamped Torrey Pines South until Tuesday afternoon. Woods mostly worked on chipping, perhaps anticipating some important shorties on a course where his length will be a big advantage.

"The fans want to see the big guys," Boo Weekley said. "They like the names. But not my funny name."

The fans get their chance with Tiger-Phil this morning and the way Torrey is set up, no one will be surprised if the pairings still carry mega star power on Sunday. It's a heavyweight's stage.

Shannon Doody - the USGA museum staff member in charge of the trophy - quickly put away the ceremony-maker after its TV moment. During this process, Colin Montgomerie blew by on the way to a tee box. It was hard to tell if Montgomerie noticed the combination lock being clicked shut.

June 12, 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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