Those dark storm clouds that plagued the PGA Tour last weekend in Ohio appear to be following some of the world’s finest golfers to the Washington suburbs. As the Kemper Open begins play early Thursday morning in Potomac, Md., at the Tournament Players Club at Avenel, a messy, muddy week of swinging in the rain seems highly likely.
“The sun came out, and it threw me,” England’s Nick Faldo said Wednesday with a smile. It may re-appear for a while Thursday, but more rain is in the extended forecast Friday, Saturday and possibly Sunday, according to the National Weather Service. The Washington area has had over two inches of precipitation since Sunday, and PGA Tour officials will decide Thursday morning after inspecting the course whether players will be allowed to lift, clean and place their golf balls in the fairways in the first round.
The first round of the U.S. Open will begin across the road at Congressional Country Club in seven days and the world of men’s professional golf is now mostly in place for a two-week run at venues less than a mile apart. The same raindrops have been falling on Congressional, the longest Open course in history at 7,213 yards, par-70, and players this week will have plenty of practice hitting medium and long irons at pins tucked in tricky places over par-71 Avenel’s 7,005 yards.
“The golf course is playing much longer these last two days,” said Jose Maria Olazabal, the 1994 Masters champion from Spain making only his second Kemper appearance. “There is no run at all (in the fairways) with the ball. I played quite a few long irons into par-4s today. At No. 2 (622 yards), I hit a driver, 3-wood and 8-iron. That’s some par-5. And if the flag had been in the back (of the green), it’s a 6-iron.”
Tiger Woods is home in Orlando practicing for the Open, but most of the game’s best and brightest are on the grounds for the Kemper. It starts with Greg Norman, the world’s top-ranked player, who finished tied for second last week at the rain-soaked and shortened Memorial in Dublin, Ohio, near Columbus.
He’ll be paired Thursday in a threesome that will include Faldo, who came from five shots off the lead to beat Norman by six in one of the most memorable head-to-head encouters in golf history in the final round of the ’96 Masters.
Seven of the top 10 players in the world and 21 of the top 30 will be playing in this Kemper, the 11th at Avenel since the tournament moved here from Congressional in 1987. It is easily the best field in Kemper history. Only Woods, now ranked second in the world behind Norman, No. 4 Steve Elkington and No. 8 Jumbo Ozaki are among the missing top 10. All three will be here next week at the Open.
Otherwise, it’s a field of dreams. Looking for length off the tee? Stick with John Daly, back on tour after eight weeks in alcohol rehabilitation and bashing golf balls all over the lot. Finesse? Seek out left-handed Phil Mickelson, a master chipper and putter, or Corey Pavin, the ’95 U.S. Open champion whose game is just starting to come around after a lengthy slump.
Major champions? There are 22 in the field, including Tom Lehman, the defending British Open winner; Steve Jones, the current U.S. Open title-holder; and Mark Brooks, who won last year’s PGA Championship. Ryder Cup captains? How about Lanny Wadkins ('95) and Tom Kite ('97).
There’s even a former commissioner in the field, though a 5 a.m. wakeup call might be necessary to see Deane Beman tee off at 7:15.
Avenel and Congressional are two different style golf courses. But in an effort to simulate some Open conditions, Kemper officials have allowed the rough to grow to five- and occasionally six-inch length. The high grass hasn’t been mowed since Monday because of the rain, so accuracy off the tee will be of paramount importance, just as it will be next week. The major difference: Avenel’s fairways are wider and far more forgiving than its older neighbor.
Kemper Chairman Ben Brundred said Wednesday greens will be mowed to appoximate the speed of Congressional’s for the Open. Even with the rain, Brundred said he expected putts to roll only slightly slower than the warp speeds seen at most Opens.
“As long as there are 18 holes and you’ve got a ball and a peg (tee), you can prepare here,” Faldo said. “You’ve got to play this week first. But the fact that you’re playing a similar course in similar weather, it’s got to be good. ... It’s a long hitter’s golf course, simple as that.”