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Thursday, September 4, 2014
Cherry Hills up to the task ... so far

By Bob Harig

CHERRY HILLS VILLAGE, Colo. -- It is an iconic course, one with elite championship pedigree that produced one of the greatest major championships in the game's history.

And yet, Cherry Hills has all but been passed by in terms of the professional game.

Rory McIlroy
With the thin air of the Denver suburbs, players such as Rory McIlroy were able to boom drives at Cherry Hills during the BMW Championship that the likes of Arnold Palmer never imagined when the course hosted the U.S. Open in 1960.

To bring a big tournament here such as the BMW Championship is a risk. While par 70 at 7,352 yards is not short by any means, it is when you consider the altitude in which this Denver suburb resides, meaning Cherry Hills does not play anywhere near as long as the scorecard states.

Throw in a golf ball that goes farther than many believe should be allowed, and physically fit players who maximize equipment gains, and there was plenty of fear that Cherry Hills would be run over by the game's elite.

So far, it hasn't happened.

Rory McIlroy was booming 370-yard drives -- with a 3-wood -- in practice rounds and making some of the shorter par-4s at Cherry Hills look silly. With warm temperatures, little wind, and the mile-high air, the venerable course appeared vulnerable.

And yet, 67 is the lowest score on the board with a few players still to complete the first round because of weather issues. McIlroy is tied with Gary Woodland and Jordan Spieth at the third FedEx Cup playoff event.

So much for it playing like a pitch-and-putt.

"It doesn't really," said McIlroy, who has now broken par in 20 of his past 21 rounds on the PGA Tour. "I felt like I was going nicely, and even though I bogeyed a couple of holes coming [in], the scoring isn't that good out there. Not that it's not that good, it's just not that low. It's tricky. The greens are firm. It's playing a little bit like a U.S. Open.

"I wouldn't say it's quite as difficult as that, but it is thick rough, especially around the greens, and firm greens. That's what they need to keep the scoring the way it is."

And that, the critics would say, is what is wrong with modern golf. The ball flies too far, the equipment is too good and some famous courses have been rendered obsolete as far as the pro game is concerned.

There has not been a men's professional major at Cherry Hills since 1985. The last U.S. Open here was in 1978. When Arnold Palmer made his famous charge here in 1960, he was using persimmon woods and golf balls that today's pros would scoff at on a practice range.

That is why a place such as Cherry Hills -- which hosted the 2012 U.S. Amateur -- is likely no longer a contender for a major.

The first and third holes are drivable par 4s, and the par-5 17th is reachable in 2 shots. But there are beasts, too, such as the 276-yard, par-3 eighth. The par-5 11th is 632 yards. Two par 4s measure more than 500 yards.

"It's really fun," said Phil Mickelson, who shot even-par 70 on the course where he won the 1990 U.S. Amateur. "What I really like about Cherry Hills is that the easy holes are easy. You can make birdies on the reachable holes. [But] they have some of the hardest holes anywhere.

"The fifth hole [526 yards, par 4] is one of the hardest holes you'll ever see. The eighth hole is 285. It's a long beast of a hole. There's some really difficult pars, and there's some really good birdie opportunities. From a player's standpoint, it's extremely fun to play."

To be sure, there were struggles. U.S. Ryder Cup captain's picks Hunter Mahan and Webb Simpson didn't find Cherry Hills easy by any means. Mahan shot 75 and Simpson had 73. Another Ryder Cupper, Patrick Reed, shot 70. Ryan Moore had 80.

"Actually, it reminds me of Augusta in the early '90s, where the course played very short, but the greens were the defense," Mickelson said. "And the greens were very fast and very firm and very difficult to get the ball close. I think that was the defense of the golf course.

"Also, the chipping to these firm greens, you don't think much of it. But, out of the rough now, not being able to put spin on the ball, it's very hard to get it up and down, because you just can't stop it. You can't hit it high enough or soft enough or get enough spin on it to get the ball stopped, unless it's just straight uphill."

And yet Mickelson had no problem with it. To enable a course of Cherry Hills' stature to stand up to the best in the world, the greens need to be hard and fast, the rough thick -- and there needs to be no rain.

"It's as firm as we have seen," Woodland said. "The greens are concrete out there. So if we don't get any rain, it can be pretty interesting by the weekend."

And if it does rain?

The scores could get outrageously low, an early-week prediction that might still come true.