Wednesday, June 15, 2016

Why the longest par 3 in U.S. Open history isn't all that scary

OAKMONT, Pa. -- You've heard of sticker shock. This is scorecard shock.

There's a par 3 here at Oakmont Country Club, site of the U.S. Open, that's 288 yards from the back tee box.

When fans first hear about it, they kind of gasp. A nearly 300-yard par 3?, they ask, like they can't believe what they heard. Invariably, it's followed by some joke along the lines of: I might be able to get there if I hit driver...twice! Guffaw, guffaw.

But for the field here at this ninth Open at Oakmont, the eighth isn't a joke. It's a behemoth hole -- the longest par 3 in U.S. Open history -- that they'll have to navigate four times if they want to win the national championship.

Then again, they had to do the same thing in 2007, when this hole played the exact same length. In nine years, the eighth hole has become, at least relatively speaking, easier. Modern golf equipment has pushed the limits of distance even farther, making it easier for the top, long-hitting players to reach this green with an iron in their hand.

"I've hit anything from a 3-wood to a 4-iron," McIlroy said Tuesday. "It was a little soft on last Tuesday after a thunderstorm. So I hit a 3-wood and carried it on to the middle of the green. And then yesterday, it was downwind. I hit a 4-iron to the back sort of portion of the green as well. So it really depends."

The four-time major winner reiterated a point that has been made a lot this week: Oakmont isn't all that long. Yeah, there's a 288-yard par 3 and a nearly 670-yard par 5, but the yardage on the card -- a grand total of 7,230 -- is deceptive.

"I think one of the things about this golf course is what the yardage says on the tee, it doesn't play anything like that," he said.

Even though players are using less club to get near the green, and that 288 on the scorecard is deceptive, that doesn't mean the hole is all that much easier.

The slightly downhill tee shot plays to a green that slopes from back-to-front and runs left-to-right. If a player wants to reach the green on a rope, they'll have fly their tee shot over a bunker that juts in from the left. Even if they get over that and try to run it on through the neck, their ball will run away from them as it tries to roll uphill on the putting surface. The ball may stop on the green, but it could invite a likely three-putt from the back of the green, depending on the hole location.

The more prudent play is to hit a draw that flies right-to-left, starting at the grandstand to the right of the green. If executed properly, the shot will give a player a decent chance to hit and stay on the putting surface. If they miss, they could land either in the short fairway leading into the green with a reasonable uphill pitch. If they ball goes a little longer, it'll land in one of several bunkers on the right side, ideally one of two in the front that will give a player a good chance to get the ball close for par with their second shot.

It might sound daunting to the average golfer -- and that's because it is. However, the best players in the world can see past the yardage and dissect this hole. They know what to do, and what not to do, and, as G.I. Joe taught us, knowing is half the battle.

Rickie Fowler isn't scared of No. 8.

"It's a pretty big green. You've got an area to run up. If you put yourself in the right position on missing the green and not short side yourself, it's very playable," he said.

Fowler is like a lot of players in the field. They can tell you how a hole should be approached in concept. They can speak confidently, at times, downplaying the difficulty. However, Fowler acknowledged that a poorly executed plan on the eighth will, at times, lead to tournament-crushing, demoralizing high scores.

"So unless you short side yourself, it's not that difficult of a hole, but a bad tee shot is going to make it as hard as you want," he said.

That's a pretty big "but."

However, thinking of this hole -- or this course -- by the par on the card is a mistake. In 2007, the scoring average for the week on this par-70 course was 75.7. For the eighth, the average was 3.45. In other words, a bogey on the eighth might only cost a player about a half-shot on the field. That's not a big penalty.

But that also means that a par gains on the field, and that's precisely why you won't see a lot of players firing pin-seekers this week.

"You won't see many 2s there," Fowler said, "but take 3 and walk away."


Ryan Ballengee is a Yahoo Sports contributor. Find him on Facebook and Twitter.

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