OAKMONT, Pa. - Vaughn Taylor is back at Oakmont, relieved that it's only the U.S. Open.
There has been widespread talk of gloom and doom in recent weeks, from defending champion Geoff Ogilvy reportedly losing seven balls in his round of 85 to Vijay Singh and a host of others saying they would not be surprised if the winner finished 10 shots over par.
Oakmont is reputed to be the toughest golf course in America, but as it prepares to host its record eighth U.S. Open, there is another part of the mystique that players should keep in mind.
If you think it's tough now, come back in July.
"The members say we don't have to do anything except maybe make it slightly easier," said Mike Davis, the USGA's senior director of rules and competition who sets up the course for the toughest test in golf.
Taylor can attest to that.
He hasn't played in the U.S. Open since 1998, when he was spooked by the narrow fairways and high rough. But he has been to Oakmont twice in the last few years to play a corporate outing, and the greens were unlike any he has played.
"I had two four-putts and three three-putts, and I putted pretty good that day," said Taylor, one of the best on the PGA Tour. "The greens are slower now than they usually are."
Monday was the first day of practice for the U.S. Open, the first chance for many to see what the fuss is all about. Along with some of the fastest greens anywhere, the rough is as punishing as ever - so punishing Phil Mickelson attributes his left wrist injury to chipping countless times out of the rough during his marathon practice rounds two weeks ago.
Mickelson had his wrist tightly wrapped Monday and did not play a practice round. He only hit half-shots from the grass on the range, placing his ball on a tee to hit a middle iron, graduating to a hybrid that made short-game coach Dave Pelz wince with nervousness, and he hit only one shot with his driver before going back to 30-yard chips.
He plans to play his first round since he withdrew after 11 holes at the Memorial.
Tiger Woods started on the back nine and played 18 holes and offered this prognosis: "I broke 100."
But there have been few complaints. They say it is tough but fair, but they have yet to put pencil to scorecard.
"It is stifling difficult, to the point of walking off and feeling like you've got 12 rounds with Ali," Paul Goydos said.
He tied for 44th in 1994, the last time the U.S. Open was held at Oakmont, and it is one of his favorite U.S. Open courses. Beyond the famous Church Pew bunkers and frightening fast greens, what intrigues Goydos is the membership, specifically why anyone would want to belong to a club that beats you to a pulp.
"They have an interesting mentality," he said. "I think they're all insane. These people must like losing balls and shooting 100."
But one way Goydos measures what is a great golf course is how many times it has held the U.S. Open, and he attributes Oakmont's spot in the rotation to a membership that loves seeing how the best players in the world can handle their course.
"The members here relish the opportunity," he said. "They can't wait to have you here. You can feel how excited they are in the clubhouse. They're like a bunch of peacocks showing off their feathers."
Kevin Sutherland was amazed at the rough, and not because it was a U.S. Open. The USGA again is using a graduated rough, which gets longer the farther a player is from the fairway. It was thick and nasty, and he expects that at a U.S. Open.
What got his attention was realizing the bunkers determined the rough line, meaning the fairways were just as narrow for the members during a summer fourball than it is for the U.S. Open.
"Unless the bunkers are supposed to be in the fairway," he said, shaking his head.
This is what led Padraig Harrington of Ireland to suggest that the USGA take the week off. He figures there's not much for its staff to do this week if it wants to protect par. Oakmont already does that.
"What this golf course does is give the USGA more control over scoring," he said. "You could turn up here when there's not a tournament and play a tournament. By its nature, it's already difficult. It's a struggle. They don't have to put the pin 2 feet over a tier. They could put the pin 2 yards over a tier. It's tough enough."
It certainly looked that way on a warm, breezy sunny afternoon. Craig Kanada opted to hit a hybrid off the 313-yard 17th hole, where the big hitters often opt for driver. His first shot was gobbled up by the rough on the left side. His second shot took one hop and disappeared into the high grass. He finally got it right on the third try.
Jeff Brehaut, playing in his first major championship, walked off the 18th green and handed golf balls to the two volunteers who walked around with him and U.S. Senior Open champion Allen Doyle.
When asked whether he had enough balls left to give away, Brehaut smiled. "I lost a few of them out there," he said.
Taylor grew up and still lives in Augusta, Ga., but he was asked whether Oakmont was a club he would like to join if he lived here.
"I don't know if I could play here every day," Taylor said. "This course just beats you up."