Pinehurst # 2 - a tale of two US Opens

BY Bruce Young | 23 Apr 2014

The US Open is still nearly two months away but a Media Day was held earlier this week at Pinehurst where both the Men’s and Women’s US Opens will be played back to back in June.

There is debate which is the greatest of the men’s major championships but there is little doubting the place the US Women’s Open holds in the female game and this year the novel approach of staging the event following immediately after the men’s version at the same iconic American venue is one that will be watched with interest.

In many respects Pinehurst in North Carolina is America’s answer to St Andrews because of the great history of the game in the region and the number of high quality golf courses within a short drive of the township.

The population of Pinehurst is only 15000 or so but it is very much one of the great golfing destinations of the US.

Pinehurst # 2 has a long history having been first built in 1907 when designed by the great Donald Ross and the home of many events since although it took until 1999 before it hosted its first US Open when Payne Stewart defeated Phil Mickelson a few weeks ahead of his premature and accidental death.

One of the reasons for the reluctance to use the great layout for the US Open was because of the grasses used on the greens but in 1997, Penn G2 grass (bent) was introduced to withstand the extremities of temperature and in 1999 the event was held there for the first time. Both bermuda and bentgrass had been used earlier.

There has been a lot of discussion in recent times of a change back to bermuda grass after these Open Championships are staged but at present and as part of the recent restoration project they are A4/A1 bentgrass blend.

That restoration has been undertaken by the highly respected design team of Ben Crenshaw and Bill Coore, converting the layout significantly from the one used the last time the US Open was held there in 2005 when won by Michael Campbell.

Mike Davis, the Executive Director of the USGA and the man responsible for the set-up of the US Open layouts since the debacle of the 2004 version at Shinnecock Hills, spoke of the changes.

“With Bill Coore and Ben Crenshaw, what they did, thanks to the huge commitment from Bob (Deadman the owner of the Pinehurst Resort), from you and Don Padgett and others here at Pinehurst, was to really take it back to the roots of Donald Ross, to really take the unique aspects of the sandhills of North Carolina and just the attention to detail.

“It’s always been a wonderful iconic golf course, it’s always certainly been a wonderful championship test, but what it is right now is 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. So it’s exciting.

“To that point, I got the real privilege to work closely with Bill Coore and Ben Crenshaw through this process; they couldn’t be two nicer guys. They have a great team here and the work you see – and in fact, you’re also doing a little work at Shinnecock Hills, where we will have the U.S. Open in 2018. So, Bill, on behalf of all of us, thank you for what you did. You made the place look great.

“In terms of U.S. Open tests, I think one of the things I would like to say is that it’s interesting how, over the years, how, how things get branded. One of the things that everybody says, people talk about it, is the U.S. Open being the hardest test in golf.

“There’s certainly some truth to that, relative to other events during the year. The same thing is said about the Women’s Open, the same thing is really said about all USGA national championships for the given group of players.

“But we, internally, when we talk about what we want it to be, you never hear us talk about wanting it to be the hardest test. That’s not – it ends up almost being a by-product. What we really want our national championship to be is an incredibly challenging test where it challenges every aspect of the game, shotmaking skills, your course-management skills, your ability to handle the pressure at certain times of the championship.

“We do it on some of this country’s very best golf courses. So that’s really what our championships are about is holding a challenging championship on some of the great courses in the country.

“So obviously the scores and the difficulty end up being a little bit of a by product, but there’s no one at the USGA that even talks about that we want even par to win. First of all, we’re not that good to actually dial it in there, because Mother Nature has far more to do with it than we do.

“But it ends up being that when we go to these great venues, first of all, they’re challenging right off the bat. You’re going to see that, even though it’s not prepped for U.S. Open condition right now, Pinehurst No. 2 is a challenging test of golf. But it’s a great test of golf too. I really do think when it’s all said and done that’s what makes the championship so special.

“In terms of the test here, it really starts with the putting greens and really the putting greens surrounds. When you look at, when you think about Pinehurst No. 2 and those wonderful iconic Donald Ross green complexes, they play so much smaller than they actually at least appear on paper.

“I was flying down here looking at the yardage book and the green depths range from 27 yards to 40 yards. First green, interestingly enough, being 40 yards in depth, is the biggest.

“You start to think, well, most of them are in that range of 32 to 37 paces, which really aren’t that very big, that’s relative to other courses, fairly small.

“But then you start to think about how small they really play. When they get firmer, it’s tougher to hold a ball on the green. When they get faster, all of a sudden some of those slopes, whether it’s a false front, a false back, a false side, they shrink the green.

“So you’ll see it today where you may have a ball hold on the side of a green, because of the current green speeds. But, trust me, seven weeks from now, the balls will not hold there.

“So I think that’s one of the very unique things about Pinehurst No. 2 is, part of the challenge is, can I get my ball up on these greens. If I don’t hit these greens, how to I get myself up there. What’s so neat about it is it gives players options. They can bump it, pitch it, and we have seen that in championships that have been played here in the past.

“In terms of changes from 2005 to 2014, it’s really four categories. Obviously there’s the sandy wire grass areas. Which means, for the first time ever, we are not having long rough grass for a U.S. Open or for that matter for a Women’s Open. That’s a first, considering the fact that we have been playing U.S. Opens for 120 years.

“So what they’re going to encounter is sometimes they’re going to be on sandy hardpan. Sometimes they’re going to be on soft, foot printed loose sand. Sometimes they’re going to be up against or underneath wire grass. Sometimes some of the vegetation, the natural vegetation that’s just come up in these areas, sometimes it will be on pine needles or up against a pine cone.

“But it’s going to give these players who miss a fairway just a different type of challenge. I think that all things being equal, will it be easier? Probably a little bit easier, but there is an element, I guess there’s, I suppose, an element of luck involved, if you get on hard pan, which for a good player is kind of green light. Or do you get up against a clump of wire grass. You could have two balls 6 inches apart and one can go for the green and one can’t. That’s kind of the nature of the game we play. It wasn’t meant to be equal all the time or necessarily fair.

“Another change from the last two Opens is this is absolutely a wider Open than we’re used to. That’s not a bad thing. One of the great things about moving these championships around is that you get different types of courses. We should celebrate that, celebrate the great architecture – and here what’s so neat is there’s only two mow heights out there. It’s the height they cut the fairways and the height they cut the greens. We never encountered something like that for a U.S. Open.

“It’s, from a golf course maintenance standpoint, it’s really a wonderful thing, saying you got two mow heights and that’s it. Same heights for tee as fairways as closely mown surrounds and then you got the putting greens as I mentioned.

“The extra width, it’s interesting, because if we look back to ’99 and 2005, where we may have had a fairway let’s say at 27 yards, well that generally speaking was a very consistent 27 yards. Even if there was a dogleg to it.

“This time around through the great work of Bill and Ben, you’re getting different widths at different lengths off the tee. So that right there, in and of itself, is going to give the players on many holes options.

“A little bit on the golf course setup. The scorecard for the men is going to read 7,562 yards. As I said, I can’t imagine us ever playing it that long on a given day, but that’s the tips on all the holes.

“That’s roughly 900 yards longer than what the women will play. Ben Kimball is going to go into a little bit more detail on that one.

“The intent to the back-to-back Opens, when we did this, when this concept really was born and it really was born by my predecessor, David Fay, it was an idea really that as Tom mentioned, to bring the best men in, the best women in and have them play on the same golf course, in this case, on a great golf course, and to set it up the same way.

“So the way we will do the setup is that to the extent possible we want these two weeks to play exactly the same, given the slightly differing ability of the men versus the women.

“So you’re going see the setup of the greens with the same speed Week 1 as Week 2. They’re going to be roughly 11½ to 12 on the Stimpmeter.

“You’re going to see us use roughly the same hole locations. So, you can’t use the exact hole locations, for obvious reasons, but I can almost tell you this right now, we will be in the so called Payne Stewart location, in round four, both for the men and for the women.

“So I suppose that if I was a female playing in the Women’s Open, I would be watching very, very closely that first week. Because they’re going to get an idea of where a hole location is going to be and how setup is going to be. But that again gets back to some of the intent of having this back to back.

“Same grass sites. Same bunker preparation, same preparation of the sandy wire grass areas. The only two differences, and they’re relative, is No. 1, we will be playing the women from tees forward where the men play and the second difference is that assuming we are having a cooperative weather week, both weeks, we will have the greens slightly softer. Same speed, but slightly softer for the second week.

“But the idea is there that if the men are hitting a wedge in and it’s kind of a bounce, stop… that’s what we’ll want for the women.

“If the women are hitting a 6 iron in and it’s a bounce, bounce, stop… that’s what we want for the men.

“So this all sounds wonderful on paper, I can assure you we have spent a lot of time thinking about this. Will we get it perfect? I can guarantee we will not get this thing perfect. I can promise you.

“But the idea is we’re going to try to have them play the same golf course. And, again, we could have one week very dry and breezy, the next week still, humid, soft. They’re going to play differently. But the idea is same golf course, same setup.

“On the bunkers, we get a lot of questions about this. You’ll see when you’re out there, if you haven’t already, what Bill and Ben did with this restoration is just spectacular – how they took these sandy wire grass areas, they almost integrated these areas and planted the bunkers in.

“What you’ll see out there is a couple things that you wouldn’t have seen a few years ago. Number one, because they do literally blend one into the other, so it’s an area that’s through the green going into a bunker.

“There’s some question of, well, how do you know when you’re in a bunker or not? Well, first of all, we’re going to have an official with every group like we do for every Open and that are really going to help with that, if there’s a question. But most of the time when you get to what truly is a bunker, which is a kind of a carved out depression, the ball’s going to roll down to the bottom.

“But where there’s any question, there will be hopefully enough definition that the player along with the official can determine that.

“Something else I should note on these bunkers is that you’re going to see that right now they’re just being maintained in the bottoms.

“The last thing I will mention before I turn it over to Ben Kimball, Bob Dedman mentioned something that I hope we can get virtually everybody in the room to focus in on, write some articles, broadcast on it, and that’s the sustainability of the game, particularly from an environmental cost standpoint.

“What was done here with the restoration, in some ways was a byproduct of them wanting to get back to Donald Ross and its origins, but what this has done is they’re using less resources to maintain Pinehurst No. 2 than they used to use.

“They now do not overseed it, which costs money, uses a lot of water, fertilizer, and so on. So in the winter it goes dormant. It’s a wonderful surface to play from.

“There also is, as Bob said, they’re using 40 or 50 percent of the amount of water they used to use. They’re not cutting as much. They don’t have to cut the grass in the roughs anymore. So it’s just a much more natural environment.

“And all of us who care about the game, we talk about the time it takes, the dwindling participation levels from junior golfers, we talk about the cost of the game. At the USGA we would say the biggest threat, the biggest threat to the game long term is water.

“When you think, whether it’s 20 years from now, whether it’s right now in certain parts of the country or a hundred years from now, water is going to be the thing that ultimately is going to affect the game the most.

“I think that this is a great, great story of what Pinehurst has done to say, there’s a way that we don’t have to go, we don’t have to irrigate 150 acres anymore. We can cut that down. And this is a story, we can get drier, firmer fairways and we hope that this kind of shows the golf world that this can be done other places too.

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    About the Author: Bruce Young

    A multi-award winning golf journalist, Bruce's extensive knowledge of the game comes from several years caddying the tournament circuits of the world, marketing a successful golf course design company and as one of Australia's leading golf journalists and commentators.

    Read all of Bruce's articles »

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