Following last year's U.S. Open at Oakmont, Tiger Woods told all of us run-of-the mill golfing stiffs exactly how bad we are and exactly how skilled are those who play golf for a living.

After Angel Cabrera won the 72-hole major with a score of 5-over-par, Woods told reporters that U.S. Open courses are becoming so difficult that a 10-handicapper "couldn't break 100." Golf fans, accustomed to nothing but way-under-par winning scores, needed an explanation of why the best of the best were making a bogey look good.

Golf Digest and NBC, in a reality TV gimmick, decided to send a foursome of single-digit handicappers out last Friday on Torrey Pines' South Course on the cliffs above La Jolla, Calif., to see if Woods' words were true.

To make the challenge appealing to a TV audience, they put "Today" show host Matt Lauer, Dallas Cowboys quarterback Tony Romo and singer Justin Timberlake in the group. They held a contest to give every other regular Joe who was offended by Tiger's lack of respect a chance to join the foursome, and Nebraska salesman John Atkinson earned the right to be that Joe.

The challenge will be broadcast prior to Sunday's final round of this year's U.S. Open.

However, the cat's already out of the bag. Playing from the same U.S. Open tees, Romo (an 84) and Timberlake (a 98) both disproved Woods' theory. Lauer (100) almost did. Atkinson, battling lung cancer, was just glad to be there and cherished each of his 114 strokes.

Actually, I predicted at least two in the foursome would break 100. Why? Because I've played Torrey Pines South twice and I knew there was no way, even with the course playing 800 yards longer than when I played it, that it would play more difficult. With a handicap that ranges between six and nine, I shot an 89 (blue tees) the first time and a 94 (white tees) the second.

What Woods did not take into consideration were the plush conditions in which the pros play. When Woods plays courses like Torrey Pines, the fairways are firmer and cut shorter, so drives roll farther. There are no bad lies. Greens are faster and smoother and roll much truer. They also get free drops from almost everything, and grandstands keep many errant shots in play.

When I played Torrey Pines the first time, the rough was so wet, thick and tall — at least 10 inches high — that players in my group were losing golf balls only five yards off the fairway. When we did find our ball in the rough, a sand wedge back into the fairway was the only option. It won't be that way this week.

The second time the greens were more shaggy than a normal municipal course's tee box. The hair on Don King's head was shorter. The greens' mower guys must have been on strike. Literally, you couldn't hit a putt from one side of the green to the other. I'd say they rolled about a two on the Stimpmeter. This week they'll be at 12 or 13.

Here's my challenge to Woods and his fellow pros: Play the courses you guys play under the conditions in which the rest of us play. Then you'll know why we already know how tough golf really can be.


E-mail: jimr@desnews.com