The Greenswards at this Year's Senior Open

By: Blaine Newnham

Before the PGA Championship was played at Sahalee Country Club in 1998, a critic called its greens pedestrian, you know, lacking character and challenge.

Now, the week of the U.S. Senior Open, they are being called anything but, surfaces bordering on concrete with pin placements bordering on unfair.

"They are firmer than the ones at Pebble Beach," said none other than Tom Watson.

What happened?

The folks at Sahalee are pleased, I can tell you that. So is the USGA. Indeed, because there is no rain forecast this week, the greens are likely to be borderline dormant over the weekend, making them more treacherous than they were for the PGA 12 years ago when it did rain.

Certainly, as golf course superintendent Rich Taylor put it: "[The greens are] past the wilting stage."

Watson predicted even-par might win this year's Senior Open, quite a bit different than last year, when Fred Funk won with 20-under at Crooked Stick. That won't be repeated in 2010.

The standard here is Vijay Singh's 9-under to win the PGA. Will it be bettered? Probably not.

"I just listened to a couple of guys on the practice tee whining about how tough the course is," said Chris Falco, the tournament's general chairman. "I love it."

Sahalee, arising in 1969 before the houses around it were built on a high, wooded plateau east of Seattle, wanted from the beginning to be a course worthy of a major championship while being playable for its members, serious players who come here because of the course's reputation as much as its beauty.

Early on, the USGA rejected the course as a site for a U.S. Amateur. Only because the PGA of America desperately wanted to get into the Seattle market did it get the PGA Championship.

Then, rather than be upset by the cavernous feel of the tall trees, the players in 1998 liked Sahalee's straightforward nature, the fact there were few hidden hazards. The greens ran true and fast. Rather than huge contours, the greens here are flat in the middle but nasty on the edges.

It all depends on pin placements.

I spent Thursday morning at the tournament's nerve center, the maintenance building behind the driving range, where Taylor and his cast of thousands managed the playing surfaces.

Unlike 1998, when firm was a subjective quality, this time they can measure the solidity of the greens with a tool called a TruFirm.

"Right on," said an ebullient Larry Gilhuly, the USGA's personable agronomist for the West Coast. "You guys are doing a beautiful job."

The USGA doesn't mess around with the Senior Open; it wants the same challenge as it offers in the U.S. Open, perennially golf's toughest test.

The idea is to make players think their way around the golf course, to play shots at times short of the green, allowing for the forward bounce.

Taylor controls the firmness with water. He knows there is a fine line between the greens turning splotchy and ugly as they did at Pebble, and distributing too much water, thus allowing the player to zero in with impunity.

The USGA wants the firmness varying slightly with the type of shot coming into the hole. On No. 6 and No. 18 at Sahalee, they know the players will be attacking the holes with long irons and that the greens need to be a little more receptive.

The USGA also brought its graduated rough into play, unlike the PGA Championship here when the rough was 5 inches deep right alongside the fairways. "They have options now," said a proud Taylor, "and we think the course plays more to its characteristics."

Which means balls can roll farther into the rough and nearer the tall trees that protect the course.

With faster firmer conditions, the greens at Sahalee are hardly pedestrian. They are flat enough to allow greens speeds of 13 on the Stimpmeter and subtle enough on the edges to make players, in many cases, go for the middle of the green.

So it isn't where the ball lands, but where it ends up. Sahalee, even in the lushness of the Northwest, has adapted nicely to these Open conditions.

Blaine Newnham has covered golf for 50 years. He still cherishes the memory of following Ben Hogan for 18 holes during the first round of the 1966 U.S. Open at the Olympic Club in San Francisco. He worked then for the Oakland Tribune, where he covered the Oakland Raiders during the first three seasons of head coach John Madden. Blaine moved on to Eugene, Ore., in 1971 as sports editor and columnist, covering the 1972 Olympic Games in Munich. He covered five Olympics all together - Mexico City, Munich, Los Angeles, Seoul, and Athens - before retiring in early 2005 from the Seattle Times. He covered his first Masters in 1987 when Larry Mize chipped in to beat Greg Norman, and his last in 2005 when Tiger Woods chip dramatically teetered on the lip at No. 16 and rolled in. He saw Woods' four straight major wins in 2000 and 2001, and Payne Stewart's birdie putt to win the U.S. Open at Pinehurst. Blaine now plays golf at Wing Point Golf and Country Club on Bainbridge Island, Wash., where his current index is 12.6. In 2005, Blaine received the Northwest Golf Media Association's Distinguished Service Award. He and his wife, Joanna, live in Indianola, Wash., where the Dungeness crabs outnumber the people.