Nasty 15th leaves trail of despair

FARMINGDALE, N.Y. -- Phil Mickelson opened his tour of Bethpage Black on
Thursday with a sporty birdie-birdie on the back nine and could easily have
been 4-under par when he stepped to the No. 15 tee.

Lefty hit a (gasp!) conservative 2-iron off the tee and followed that
with another less-than-forceful 2-iron on the gnarly 459-yard, par-4 hole.
Mickelson's ball did not reach the narrow, sharply elevated green, coming to
rest in the thick stuff 15 feet from the front fringe. His famous flop shot
flopped heroically, as he took a divot roughly the size of his head.

The ball hit the back of the green and spun ... slowly ... slowly ... all the way
back to the front of the green about 20 feet from where it began, not far
from where the divot landed. Mickelson's par putt missed by eight feet and
he left his bogey attempt high by nearly a foot.

Double-bogey. A giddy
minus-2 was reduced to the rubble of even-par.

Another U.S. Open victim for No. 15.

Mickelson finished the day the same way -- dead-level par. That single
hole cost him a share of the early lead with Sergio Garcia and a tie for
second place at the end of the day, one shot behind Tiger Woods.

"When I saw my lie," Mickelson said, "it was sitting so far down and
the grass had wrapped around it, that four was out of the question. I was
trying to make five and get it up on the top tier. I didn't hit a bad shot,
but it came back to me. The pin wasn't the best, because it was on a crown.
I hit a good putt to three or four feet that ended up going 15 feet."

That merely reinforced what Mickelson learned in several practice
rounds: No. 15 is one nasty piece of work.

The field of 156 golfers scored an average of 4.564 on No. 15. And
while it wasn't technically the hardest par-4 on the course in the first
round -- the par-4, 479-yard 16th hole played to a 4.577 -- it spoiled more
than few rounds. Many here believe the Open will be decided on this very

In the end, No. 15 yielded a scant 15 birdies, compared to a course-low
64 pars. There were 54 bogeys and 20 double-bogeys (a course high) and three
triple bogeys. Only the par-3 No. 8 hole required more than No. 15's average
of 1.84 putts.

Usually, when the USGA contemplates pin placements for the U.S. Open,
the four hardest locations are eventually chosen. USGA officials are already
on record as saying the four easiest locations will be employed on
No. 15 -- that's how ridiculous this green, easily the most severe on the layout, is.

The hole features a dogleg that begins 260 yards from the tee, which
tempts golfers to shave some distance off the hole by hitting left. At the
same time, the fairway angles to the right, effectively leaving 12 to 15
yards to land the ball cleanly.

The green, which tilts from back to front,
is 24 yards wide and guarded by four bunkers in the front. The two central
sand traps were reworked in the USGA's recent cosmetic surgery, adding
narrow extensions, or "fingers."

Ernie Els was among those who got caught in
one of the fingers.

The green is about 40 yards higher than the fairway, which makes for a
stout climb. The sand, quite frankly, is a safer landing area than the
rough. With the flag placed toward the back of the green Thursday, it was
difficult to get the ball close; anything too hot rolled off the back into
the rough and any ball that wasn't left of the hole or within 10-15 feet
rolled back down to the front of the green. Even short birdie putts on
several occasions were transformed into long putts for par.

They tell a fable here at Bethpage about Sam Snead and the 15th hole.
It was the 1940s and, the story goes, Snead walked off the course during a
difficult tour of the 15th, sputtering, "Hit the (expletive deleted) fairway
and you can't even make a bogey you (expletive deleted) idiot!"

On reflection, it almost rings too true, to be false.

Justin Leonard smoked the front nine on Thursday, shooting a searing
33. And then, the notorious back-nine burned him badly. He took a
triple-bogey on 12 and a Mickelsoneque double on No. 15. Leonard was
fortunate to birdie the 18th and escape with a 73.

Tiger Woods teed off on No. 10 and wound up with birdies at No. 13 and No. 14
-- then he came to the 15th. He used to an iron to clear the dogleg but his
approach shot was about 20 feet short of the hole -- and that distance nearly doubled when it rolled off that plateau.

Woods played too much break to the left and left himself a 4-footer for par. That putt, normally even-money for Woods (particularly in majors), fortunately caught a tiny piece of the cup's right side and the
ball trickled in for par.

The 15th bit Davis Love III as well. Love made five 3s in a row to close out the front nine with a
32, but the back nine was an entirely different experience. He bogeyed No.
10 and No. 11 and three-putted for another bogey on No. 15.

Sergio Garcia hit a nice drive on No. 15, leaving himself 173 yards to
the hole. He hit a "beautiful, drawing 8-iron" to within six feet of the
cup -- one of the day's best approaches. It could have been, should have been
a three. But the putt left Garcia baffled.

"I don't know how it broke up the hill," Garcia said later. "I thought I
was going to go a little left-right, and there's a huge slope on the left,
and it went towards the slope. So it was a funny putt."

Funny peculiar, not funny hah-hah. If the putt had dropped, Garcia
would have finished the day 3-under and tied with Woods. Instead, he's a shot back and playing catch-up.

After watching the
pendulum swing Thursday, you get the idea that, ultimately, this
tournament will turn on the action at No. 15.

Greg Garber is a senior writer at ESPN.com