It's still 14 months away, but the 2008 U.S. Open is getting closer to the bruising South course at Torrey Pines than you might expect.
If anyone is fortunate enough to be able to book a tee time — and it's possible even for non-residents of San Diego to do just that with a 90-day advance booking — there are plenty of signs that the Open is on its way and making a rare appearance in Southern California. FOR THE RECORD: Golf: In Monday's Sports section, a caption under a photo of Tiger Woods hitting from a bunker on the 17th hole on Sunday said he was on the way to a bogey. Woods made par on that hole. — The only other U.S. Open staged in Southern California was at Riviera Country Club in 1948, when Ben Hogan won the first of his four U.S. Open championships.
Golf course designer Rees Jones, who oversaw a renovation of the Torrey Pines South course, said the conditions would be much different in June than they are in February when the Buick Invitational is played.
"It's going to play much faster and firmer," Jones said. "Besides the conditions, the USGA will make some changes too, and the players are expecting them. The hardest thing to do these days, as an architect, is how to deal with par fives."
In time for the Open, the 572-yard par-five 18th, with water in front of the green, and the 560-yard par-five sixth, a dogleg right, will become par fours, lowering the par at the South course to 70. Jones said the landing area at the 18th is already being expanded.
But there are some additional changes in the works on the South course to prepare for the Open's 60-year reunion with the southern part of the state.
Concrete cart paths are being installed to connect the entire course, so that the walking traffic from Open galleries can be accommodated. The new cart paths will also keep carts from the fairways to save them from wear and tear.
The fairway grass and rough is being converted from Bermuda and perennial rye to kikuyu, a process that is expected to be completed by the 2008 Buick Invitational, according to Tom Wilson, executive director of the Century Club.
"There's been quite a bit of what you might call 'tweaking,' " Wilson said.
Two other projects are in the works, one of them the moving of the fourth fairway closer to the cliff to create more space between the fourth and fifth fairways.
"That should create a more scenic hole," Jones said.
The second project will probably have an impact on play, at the Buick and at the Open — a new tee at the 542-yard par-five 13th that may create a 620-yard hole with a 230-yard carry over a canyon to reach the fairway.
"Length doesn't seem to matter to these guys," Jones said. "And this hole plays with the prevailing wind. Everything seems reachable.
"That's why the par fives, as I said, are the toughest holes to design."
Jones was at the helm of a dramatic overhaul of the South course that started in 2001 and ended with 28 new bunkers and extended the layout about 550 yards to 7,568.
It was Jones' work that made the South course somewhere the USGA wanted to stage its national championship. The city of San Diego approved an agreement with the USGA in 2002, only months after the $4.5-million renovation.
When the 2008 Open arrives, more changes will come along, including the construction of a temporary driving range on the North course, using the ninth and 10th fairways. The existing driving range will serve as a staging area for catering during the Open.
Wilson said that the South course would be limited to cart paths six weeks before the Open and that play will probably be allowed until the Tuesday or Wednesday before Open week.
And when the Open takes over, Jones expects the course to be playable and fair.
"The players seem to like the place, and why not? They can stop the ball on a dime."
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