PINEHURST, N.C. (AP) -Balls that land in the rough can’t be seen 5 feet away. Shots that land on the domed greens at Pinehurst No. 2 don’t stay there very long. The U.S. Open is supposed to be the toughest test in golf, and Vijay Singh found it to be every bit of that.

But it was only Wednesday, and that’s what troubled him.

“If you’re not careful, you can make bogeys on every hole with good shots,” Singh said. “It’s very fair at the moment, but it’s very, very difficult. But it could get on the edge very quickly – if they don’t watch it, it’s going to get over the edge in a heartbeat.”

The U.S. Open begins Thursday, and several players still couldn’t stop thinking about last year.

The USGA refused to water the greens or account for dry, blustery warmth that baked out Shinnecock Hills and turned the final round into a fiasco. Tee shots wouldn’t stay on the par-3 seventh green until officials had no choice but to hose it down every other group.

No one could break par on the last day, and 28 players couldn’t break 80.

It must have been a welcome sight for Singh, Tiger Woods, Phil Mickelson and the rest of the 156-man field to see a maintenance crew water the greens during the first three days of practice at Pinehurst.

USGA officials say they have learned from their mistakes. Try convincing the players of that.

“Without rain – and it doesn’t look like we’re going to get any – we have potential for 18 holes that could be like No. 7 at Shinnecock,” Mickelson said. “Very conceivable.”

Pinehurst No. 2 was regarded as one of the best U.S. Open setups when Payne Stewart won in 1999, making a 15-foot par putt on the last hole to beat Mickelson by one shot and finish as the only player under par.

Can the USGA possibly mess up this wonderful Donald Ross creation?

“Oh, they have potential to burn,” Scott Verplank said. “This should be a good year. This is an odd year, right? And every odd year, they seem to do a good job.”

The only exception might have been Southern Hills in 2001, when the 18th green did not hold approach shots and the USGA had little choice but to mow the grass a little higher.

“At least they told everybody that green would be a little slower,” Verplank said. “Last year, they didn’t post anything in the locker room before we went out for the last round that No. 7 is unplayable.”

Nothing about Pinehurst No. 2 is easy.

It starts off in the tee box, where shots must stay in the fairway to have any chance of getting on the green. Pinehurst added an irrigation system in the rough and a new blend of grass that is more dense, meaning the only way to find the ball is marshals placing tiny red flags next to them.

And then the fun begins.

Perhaps no other major championship course is more defined by the greens, which are shaped like turtle shells. Any shot too long or too short or too much to the side will roll off and wind up as much as 30 yards away. From there, players can choose anything from a putter to a fairway metal to get the ball onto the putting surface.

“The ball tends to sweep into the pins at Augusta,” Padraig Harrington said. “Here, it’s always running away from them. This is very tough.”

Mickelson predicted that “quite a bit over par” would be the winning score. Singh wouldn’t go that far, although he said that without rain, it would be difficult to break par.

“I think this is the hardest U.S. golf course I’ve played from tee to green and around the greens,” Singh said. “It’s going to be one hell of a test.”

It all begins to unfold Thursday with high expectations built on what happened in 1999. Stewart closed with three crucial putts, two for par and one for birdie, and his dramatic win became even more compelling when he perished in a freak plane accident four months later. Mickelson carried a pager with him all week, threatening to leave if his wife went into labor with their first child, Amanda, who turns 6 on Tuesday.

That year showed that Pinehurst might identify the best players more than any other U.S. Open course. Woods and Singh finished two shots behind. David Duval, then the No. 1 player in the world, was among the early leaders Sunday.

“It determines who’s thinking the best, who’s the most patient, who’s more determined,” Davis Love III said.

Love was one of the few who thought a score under par was available.

Then again, players always predict high scoring on the eve of the U.S. Open, even though it has been 27 years since over par won the U.S. Open.

Tom Meeks, in charge of setting up the U.S. Open for the last time in his role as senior director of rules and competition, said greens would run at 11.6 on the Stimpmeter, and that greens would only be cut twice to make sure they were at that speed.

Still, the USGA already has targeted the green on the 472-yard fifth hole as one that could get become impossible to hold if it gets too dry.

Meeks only hopes the players have not lost confidence in the USGA.

“We’re not trying to make them look like a bunch of buffoons,” he said. “We’re just trying to challenge them.”

Singh ran into Meeks earlier in the week and stopped just short of wagging his finger at him as if to say, “Careful.”

“I told Tom Meeks, If you lose the golf course, you’d better hide – but there’s going to be no place to hide, because we’re going to find you,”‘ Singh said. “I just hope they make it fair for everybody. The golf course is in great shape right now. The setup is perfect. If they just left it like this – I hope they’re listening – it would be fine.”

Typical of most U.S. Opens, only one guy will be happy at the end of the week.

AP-ES-06-15-05 1653EDT

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