It's Back to the Future for USGA Opens at Pinehurst No. 2

It's Back to the Future for USGA Opens at Pinehurst No. 2

Reid Spencer Editor
image Photo courtesy of Pinehurst Resort
This view from the right side of Pinehurst No. 2's par-5 10th hole is a perfect illustration of the removal of rough in favor of waste areas in the renovation of the historic layout.

Highway 73 in North Carolina, the route from Davidson to Pinehurst, takes you through a succession of one-stoplight mill towns where recession is a way of life.

Flags in the front yards of modest houses bear the stylized No. 3 and still fly at half-staff 13 years after the death of Dale Earnhardt.

Life is simple. When local residents talk about doing a few “lines,” they’re talking about the Spare-Time Lanes on league night. 

When they buy a car, they expect to own it until it breaks. In its afterlife, the rusted-out husk of that car, stripped of everything of value, will sit for years next to a dirt driveway as a Gothic reminder of better days.

And yet, about midway between Mayberry and Deliverance lies one of the most opulent golf destinations in the world—not opulent in the sense of gaudy or ridiculously expensive, but abundantly rich in the history of the game and in the almost overwhelming variety of the golf available to visitors who flock to the North Carolina Sandhills for a taste of the Donald Ross heritage.

Pinehurst is a lush oasis between pig farms to the east and chicken farms to the west—lush, that is, in most respects.  

The notable exception is the vaunted No. 2 course at Pinehurst Resort, the venue selected for the United States Golf Association’s Great Experiment of 2014. Back to back, in consecutive weeks, Pinehurst No. 2 will host its two foremost championships—the U.S. Open and the U.S. Women’s Open.

Players who competed in either of the two previous U.S. Opens at Pinehurst, in 1999 and 2005, will will barely recognize the golf course this year. In all honesty, Pinehurst No. 2 now looks more like a desert island than an oasis.

The heavy rough to the right of the 18th fairway—the thick Bermuda grass that gobbled up the late Payne Stewart’s ball in the final round and forced the eventual 1999 champion to lay up short of the cross bunkers—is gone.

In fact, all the rough on the Donald Ross masterpiece is gone, 35 acres’ worth. In 2011, architects Ben Crenshaw and Bill Coore began a remarkable renovation that restored Ross’ original design characteristics to a course that, as Coore expressed to reporters on USGA media day Apr. 21 at Pinehurst, had lost some of its unique identity.

And Coore knows that the changes won’t be without controversy, especially among those who consider the green fairways and immaculately manicured contours of Augusta National Golf Club the appropriate benchmarks for a major championship.

“There’s room in the world of golf for this,” Coore said, standing on the first tee and pointing down a fairway flanked by large expanses of sand, pine straw and wire grass. “This may look like golf of the past—I’m talking about the presentation of the course—but, in so many ways, this is golf of the future.

“In today’s world, with water issues, environmental impact issues and costs associated with maintenance, the majority of courses are going to have to go more in this direction. What we hope is that this presentation for our two most prestigious national championships… we hope that it will showcase them and somehow convey to those of us who love golf around this country and around the world that this is OK.

“Perfection does not have to exist at every course. For us, this is perfection out here. If you look at the old photographs, if you read Mr. Ross’ writings, I think he would agree with it.”

There’s no disagreement about the random element the restoration will introduce to the two national championships. In most U.S. Open setups, a ball hit into deep rough takes much of the strategy out of the game. The prevalent approach is to hack the ball out to the fairway and attempt to save par with a wedge and a putt, as Stewart did on the 72nd hole in 1999, thereby cementing a one-shot win over Phil Mickelson.

With no rough, and given the proclivity of the ball to roll off hard, albeit wider fairways into sand, hard pan, wire grass, pine straw or scrub vegetation, the variety of lies off the fairways will require careful evaluation.

As reporters who played the course on media day discovered, rarely will the course render a lie from which the ball can’t be advanced. The question then becomes not “Can I go for the green or not?” but “How much will the lie affect my shot?”

Accordingly, the changes introduce a level of subtlety and nuance not present in dealing with typical, deep U.S. Open rough.

If this is the golf of the future, as Coore says, it truly also is the golf of the past. When Ross ventured to Pinehurst from Scotland at the turn of the 20th century, he brought with him the legacy of Old Tom Morris, who laid out Ross’ home course, Royal Dornoch.

Though there is only one water hazard on Pinehurst No. 2 (an out-of-play pond on No. 16), the restored No. 2 nevertheless manifests a kinship to a seaside links course such as Dornoch, the source of Ross’ inspiration.

Most obvious are the crowned greens, which have grown more “mountainous” over the years after a century of top-dressing. Like a Scottish course, the sand-based fairways for the two Opens will play firmer and faster, encouraging the ball to roll off the short grass into lies that are deliciously random.

“It’s always been a wonderful, iconic golf course,” said USGA executive director Mike Davis, who will direct the course setup. “It’s always been a wonderful championship test, but what it is right now… it’s all those things plus more.

“It’s just made Pinehurst No. 2—it’s hard to believe you could make it better—but it’s made it better, and it’s made it a good bit better. It’s certainly more aesthetically pleasing, but I think from a shot-value standpoint, it’s going to give the best players in the world some shots that they simply haven’t had to make in past U.S. Opens.”

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