Mature Hazeltine a tough test

CHASKA, Minn. -- When the world's best golfers first saw then 8-year-old Hazeltine National at the 1970 U.S. Open, they hated it.

"What does it lack?" Dave Hill asked himself after a second round where 40 percent of the field couldn't break 80.

"Eighty acres of corn and a few cows," he answered. And Hill finished second to Tony Jacklin that year.

Twenty-one years later, thanks to plenty of reworking by architect Robert Trent Jones and his son Rees, a major championship returned for the 1991 U.S. Open, when Payne Stewart won in a playoff over Scott Simpson.

Hill, who returned for the event, noted the course's maturity. Stewart, who died tragically in a plane crash in 1999, had no complaints after his win.

And now, 11 years after that Open, the club that opened 40 years ago with the expressed intent of hosting major championships is in the crosshairs again. It's invested $2 million in new bunkers and irrigation. It has new tees on five holes. It's 211 yards longer than it was in 1991, and features the longest par 5 in PGA Championship history -- the 636-yard third.

How will it play?

"It's fair, but not like a Bethpage," said Stewart Cink, referring to the site of the 2002 U.S. Open. "There will be some guys under par."

"There doesn't seem to be a lot of tricks and hidden shots," Scott Verplank said.

Hazeltine is most often linked with Medinah, which hosted the 1999 PGA. The courses are similar in layout and look, though Hazeltine is often beset by fierce winds that can whip through the Minnesota prairie.

"It is similar to Medinah," said Woods, who won three years ago at 11-under. "Some of the looks, some of the shapes, some of the holes -- it looks very similar. Hopefully I can use the same feeling I had then this week."

Theories on how to play the 7,360-yard course were mixed during practice rounds. Sergio Garcia said he expects plenty of players to hit driver, especially on the long par 4s and certainly the par 5s. Woods isn't so sure, saying he expects to see 3-woods and his new favorite off the tee, the 280-yard 2-iron, to keep the ball in the fairway. Phil Mickelson figures it's somewhere in the middle.

"What holes I will hit driver on will depend on the wind conditions," Mickelson said. "For the most part, I expect to hit it a fair amount of the time."

Three of the four par 5s will likely be three-shot holes for all but the longest hitters. No one will reach the monstrous third hole in two. Well, probably no one. "I can't get there -- unless it's downwind," said Woods.

The par-3s aren't particularly long; the 178-yard eighth in the shortest hole on the course, but maybe the most dangerous, especially if the wind blows. The green is the smallest at Hazeltine. The 204-yard 13th was the third-toughest hole 11 years ago.

The par-4s are an eclectic mix. Several are short, including the 357-yard 14th, which some players will try to drive. The first hole is a 460-yard monster that won't yield many birdies.

The 16th, which runs along Lake Hazeltine, is the hole on the mind of most people. It was originally a par-3 along the lake. Before the 1991 Open, it was lengthened to a par 4, and played as the toughest hole that year (4.398, with only 41 birdies compared to 149 scores of bogey or worse).

An oak tree that guarded the green was lost in a storm, so the fairway has been reshaped slightly, bringing a stream on the left into play. Several bunkers were also added.

"It could be a major factor in this outcome of the event because so much can happen there," said Paul Azinger.

The 17th and 18th holes won't give up many birdies, though the par-4 18th favors the big hitters who can catch a downslope and roll to within 150 yards.

"Any time you play (the last three holes) even par, you're going to be doing well," Woods said.

How many under par will leaders go? In 1970, only Jacklin broke par for four rounds. In 1991, only six players were in red numbers.

The course isn't set up as extreme as it was then, so Hazeltine pro Mike Schultz thinks 10-under may be the number.

"I would say the way the golf course is playing now, it favors a lot more players than Bethpage did, but not as many as Muirfield," said Els.

"This is the kind of course you want to have for a major," said Garcia.

Kind words for Totten Peavey Heffelfinger's vision of a golf course in the suburban outskirts of Minneapolis. What a difference 32 years makes.