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STRESS TEST The U.S. Open returns for a record eighth time to Oakmont, where the degree of difficulty is second to none

Golfing legend Gene Sarazen, the first man to win the sport's career grand slam, once described Oakmont as a country club with "all the charm of a sock to the head."

It's unclear whether Sarazen was reeling from a four-putt or a misadventure in one of Oakmont's infamous bunkers at the time. But echoed across the decades, his words seem less an indictment than a compliment, a grudging testimonial to one of golf's most beloved and bewildering courses.

Yes, Oakmont can smack a player between the eyes and bring him to his knees. It has a peculiar, dastardly charm that is ideal for separating the good golfers from the truly great. Oakmont is golf's ultimate test, and that's why the storied old club, which is located just outside Pittsburgh, will be hosting the U.S. Open this week for a record eighth time.

"It doesn't get any better than Oakmont," said Mike Davis, senior director of competitions for the USGA, which runs the Open. "This is just fantastic. We're trying to determine the national golf champion for this country. Oakmont does some of those things without even really trying. I mean, in some ways we're trying to make sure that it doesn't get over the top and get too difficult to the point that good shots are not rewarded."

The USGA goes out of its way to make sure the Open is hard. Invariably, that results in players complaining about the course being too difficult, to the point of unfair. You might recall the fiasco at Shinnecock in 2004, when it became so hard to hold the seventh green that the grounds crew had to water it between groups on Sunday.

The challenge of a U.S. Open is to make it hard enough, but not too hard. At Oakmont, they seem to strike a delicate balance. The course is brutal, but fair. In recent weeks, the pros haven't been whining so much as conceding the obvious -- that this year's Open could be one of the toughest in recent memory.

Vijay Singh is predicting a winning score of 8- to 10-over par. Tiger Woods, who has never played a competitive round at Oakmont, played a practice round in April and said the greens were "like nothing I've seen before." Johnny Miller, who shot his famous 63 in the final round of the Open at Oakmont in 1973, said the greens are the toughest in the world.

Henry C. Fownes, the Pittsburgh industrialist who founded Oakmont in 1903, would be gratified to hear it. Fownes had a fondness for Scottish links courses. So he gathered 150 men and two dozen donkeys and cleared out every tree on the property, recreating a links layout similar to the ones he'd played during visits to the British Isles.

Fownes had a simple philosophy for Oakmont: "A shot played poorly should be a shot irrevocably lost." The place is laid out accordingly. The club planted trees in the 1960s to create a parkland effect, but removed most of them after Ernie Els won the Open there in 1994, restoring its original links-like character.

Oakmont isn't overly long for an Open course. It will play at 7,230 yards, a par-70. Davis says there is "a wonderful ebb and flow to it," a nice blend of short, medium and long holes. Three of the par-4s will be drivable. The USGA will shift the tee markers and hole locations, making it more enticing for the players to go for it off the tee on Sunday.

Two of the par-5s are longer than 600 yards. The 12th, which Davis calls "the most strategic par-5 in championship golf," is 667 yards from the back tees. Then there's the par-3 eighth hole, which measures 288 yards from the back. That makes it the longest par-3 in Open history. The eighth is only 25 yards shorter than the uphill, par-4 17th hole.

"What is it, a 900-yard par-3?" Woods said recently. The hole used to play 252 yards, which required players to hit 3-wood or driver in the old days, before technology turned clubs into rocket launchers. It reached the point where players were routinely driving the eighth green with 4- or 5-irons.

Woods cut a 3-wood during his practice rounds. He told people he couldn't hit a driver off a par-3, that it was "against his religion."

Of course, even God would get smacked in the head at Oakmont. Horrors abound there. The fairways have been narrowed to 22 to 28 yards, and most of the lies are uneven. There are a number of blind or semi-blind shots off the tee. There are some 210 bunkers on the course. The rough is thick and graduated, in keeping with Open standards. The greens are sinfully fast. Sam Snead once claimed that he marked his ball at Oakmont and his dime starting sliding away.

"It's all about the greens," said Miller, now a highly regarded, and at times controversial, golf analyst. "If you hit it above the hole, it's impossible. You are just not going to make any long putts. It's about making the short putts below or to the side of the hole. Look for the guys who can hit out of the rough well and also have a good short game to win."

Negotiating the bunkers will also be critical -- particularly the infamous Church Pews along the third and fourth fairways. The Church Pews are 12 mounds of grass situated in a sand trap the approximate size of Belize. Each mound rises about three to four feet and is covered by tall fescue grass. The sand is soft and fine, which can make finding the ball a challenge.

"If you make a poor decision in the Church Pews, you're going to be in there for awhile," said Eric Johnson, Oakmont's director of instruction. "My advice is to surrender. Don't be a hero."

Did you hear that, Lefty? Phil Mickelson was on the verge of winning his first U.S. Open last year at Winged Foot. But he tried to be a hero on the final hole, made a ghastly double bogey and tossed away a possible fourth major title. Jim Furyk, Padraig Harrington and Colin Montgomerie also melted down at the end, allowing Geoff Ogilvy to win at plus-5.

That was the highest winning score at a U.S. Open since Hale Irwin won with the same score at Winged Foot in 1974. Judging from the pre-tournament talk, 5-over could win it again. Mickelson, who is second on the PGA money list behind Woods, was expected to make another run at it this year. Miller, in fact, said he wouldn't be surprised if Mickelson won with ease.

But that was before Mickelson injured his left wrist. Mickelson pulled out of this week's event in Memphis because of lingering pain in the wrist, which he may have injured hitting out of the rough during a practice round at Oakmont. Mickelson took a cortisone injection and doctors told him he should be pain-free for the Open.

Woods, as always, is the man to beat. Despite winning three majors, Mickelson has yet to prove he can stare down the game's best player in a major. Mickelson has the game to challenge Woods. He's driving it in the fairway. But will the memory of last year's Open choke linger at Oakmont? Will the wrist injury become a convenient excuse if he falters?

Woods hasn't won the Open since 2002. It's the only major he hasn't won at least three times. He missed the cut at Winged Foot a year ago, soon after his father's death. It was his first missed cut in a major as a pro. Woods, whose wife Elin is expecting their first child later in the summer, has been putting well of late and should be ready and confident at Oakmont.

Jim Furyk says you don't defeat a U.S. Open course, you survive it. To win at Oakmont, a player has to shake off the inevitable blows to the head and keep grinding. It'll take a straight, steady player with a good short game to win. Furyk, who won the Open in 2003 and finished second last year, should contend. His parents grew up in Pittsburgh, so he'll be a sentimental favorite as well.

Harrington, who has four Top 10 finishes in nine Open tries, has the game and temperament to do well. Zach Johnson, the Masters champ, should be a factor. Singh, who tied for sixth in the last two Opens, can never be ruled out. The same goes for Retief Goosen, who hasn't been at his best lately but is a two-time winner. Adam Scott could be ready for a major breakthrough.

Oh, and don't forget Ogilvy, the defending champion. He doesn't dwell on the fact that people remember 2006 as the Open that Mickelson lost.

"The trophy is sitting on my mantelpiece, so I'm quite happy where I'm sitting at the moment," Ogilvy said. "To be completely honest, I was pretty fortunate last year that it turned out the way it did."

It always helps to have a little luck at a U.S. Open. But at Oakmont, which has a unique, sinister charm, par will be everyone's best friend. Let the best man, uh, survive.

e-mail: jsullivan@buffnews.com

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