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At Newport, what was old is new again

Old money becomes old money by never squandering it. That's particularly true at Newport (R.I.) Country Club, maybe the oldest of the old money clubs in America and site of the 2006 U.S. Women's Open.

The club has never seen the need to install a fairway irrigation system on its course, a genuine links hard by Rhode Island Sound. Newport began as a nine-holer designed by its first pro, Willie Davis, in 1894. It was expanded to 18 by Donald Ross in 1915, then remodeled into a stylish, mostly tan-and-yellow championship layout by A.W. Tillinghast in 1924.

Of course, most clubs of its vintage started with unirrigated fairways. By the 1950s, a vast majority of Newport's brethren had installed quick-couplers so fairways could be watered at night, and when bent grass fairways became the rage in the 1970s, the same clubs spent more money converting to automatic irrigation. Not Newport. Members have always felt content to let rain determine the color, density and playing quality of their fescue fairways. That's true even today. A recent proposal before the board of directors, I'm told, saw just one vote in favor of spending money to install fairway irrigation.

As a result, Newport Country Club is unique as a tournament venue in America. Its fairways, when dry and firm, are the great equalizer. Never was that more evident than in the final match of the 1995 U.S. Amateur, when then 42-year-old Buddy Marucci took teenage phenom Tiger Woods to the 36th hole before losing 2 down. Dry, firm fairways provided plenty of roll, so Marucci could hit driver off most par 4s and par 5s and keep pace with Tiger, who had to hit a lot of 2-irons off tees to keep from rolling through doglegs into the tall fescue rough.

Those fairways also provided nice, tight lies that allowed both players to stop shots on the small, firm greens. (Newport's greens do have irrigation, but it's used sparingly, particularly when the U.S. Golf Association is in town.)

It could well be that Michelle Wie and other big hitters in this year's Women's Open field will, like Tiger in '95, see their length neutralized by Newport's native grass fairways, which would make for a wide open race for the title.

However, the northeast was drenched with rain for two months leading up to the Open, so the fairways might be far softer than they were for the Amateur, giving Wie a distinct advantage with her length. That could be particularly true on the seven holes separated from the seashore by Ocean View Road. Those holes are a mere two feet above sea level, so there's not much surface drainage. If the sand base beneath those holes gets saturated, standing water in fairways might even result. (Normally those are holes 2-8, but as the nines will be reversed for the Women's Open, they'll play as holes 11-17).

Still, it's always windy at Newport, so if rain holds off during Open week, the course eventually will dry out and play more like an ancient British links and less like a modern-day American country-club course.

Another factor in the absence of sprinkler heads in the fairways are the absence of the usual spots from which caddies determine yardage. Newport favors "feel" players, who make club selections more by eyeballing than by exact yardage. But I don't know that there any of those among the top women players. Caddies, I suspect, are going to get workouts during Open week, running back and forth stepping off distances from corners of bunkers.

Besides the reversal of the nines this year, Newport will play differently than it did in the '95 Amateur in a couple of other respects. Pennsylvania architect Ron Forse, who has consulted with the club for the past seven years, assisted in reclaiming green sizes, so we might see some new flag positions in some back corners, and along the front of the closing green, which now, once again, features a big frontal slope.

Forse also supervised the reclamation of many fabulous Tillinghast bunkers that had been grassed over decades ago. The irony, of course, is that Tillinghast himself spent a third of the 1930s instructing clubs to fill in such "duffer's headaches," and at first blush it might appear that Forse simply re-established bunkers that look great but don't really come into play for championship golfers. But while that might be true on holes such as the 219-yard par-3 fourth (the 13th in the Women's Open), where bunkers now stretch for a hundred yards on both sides of the approach to the green, Forse says that on many holes, he repositioned reclaimed bunkers for strategic as well as scenic attributes.

On the uphill fifth (the 14th in the Open), for instance, a 1929 aerial showed a bunker well short and right of the green that was obliterated years ago. Instead of rebuilding it in the exact location, at the base of a hill, Forse placed it into the face of the hill, where it must be carried to reach the green from any tee shot on the right side of the fairway -- the "safe" avenue off the tee.

Likewise, he reintroduced a cross bunker on the 308-yard third (the tournament's 12th hole) as well as a bunker far right that traps those who choose to avoid driving over the cross bunker off the tee.

Forse also recommended the removal of many inappropriate spruce trees around the course, particularly a line of them that edged the ninth, what will be the closing hole for this year's Open. Those trees had been planted in the 1920s to prevent a very old-moneyed Newport member from landing his personal plane on the fairway.

Weather will determine how Newport Country Club will play for the Women's Open, and as of Monday of this week it was raining there. I'd been hoping for a warm, dry week, so the fescue fairways will end up playing firm and fast by the weekend, but that doesn't look likely. But Newport members can't be too unhappy. Conditions will now favor big hitters who can keep the ball airborne, so Wie likely will be a contender this week. Plus, the club looks exceedingly wise in not wasting good money on superfluous fairway irrigation.

Ron Whitten is a senior editor for Golf Digest magazine