Two weeks in June: U.S. Opens like never before

By Randall MellApril 22, 2014, 6:00 pm

PINEHURST, N.C. – The USGA’s return to Pinehurst No. 2 feels like an expedition this year.

Golf’s governing body is preparing to take the game to places previously unexplored in this year’s U.S. Open and U.S. Women’s Open.

Based on Monday’s presentation to the media, the championships this June promise to unfold like nothing the game has ever witnessed.

It isn’t just the fact that the men and women will play in back-to-back weeks at the same venue for the first time in major championship history. It’s the nature of the venue itself. With Ben Crenshaw and Bill Coore dramatically restoring Pinehurst No. 2 to the original form Donald Ross intended, these championships are going to have a time-warp feel, circa 1907.

If the U.S. Open goes to a Monday playoff, you’re going to see the men and women on the course at the same time. You’re going to see women teeing it up at Pinehurst No. 2 for their U.S. Women’s Open practice rounds before and after the men’s playoff.

Even if the U.S. Open doesn’t go to a playoff, you’re going to see men and women crossing paths at Pinehurst on their way to practice the weekend of the men’s championship. You’re even going to see them sharing locker-room space.

You’re also going to see them playing a shot-making test unlike any other U.S. Open or U.S. Women’s Open. With Crenshaw and Coore tearing out the lush, wall-to-wall green grass look of Pinehurst No. 2, this championship will be played without rough – or at least without rough as we’ve come to know it.

The fairways will spill through the natural, rugged terrain of the sand hills of this region. Balls that stray from the fairway will no longer sink into Bermuda rough. They’ll run into sand and pine straw dotted with wire-grass sprigs.

The nature of missing fairways now adds the same element of intrigue that Donald Ross’ turtle-back greens offer. In most PGA Tour events, the excitement often stops when the ball hits the green, skips and screeches to a halt. On Ross’ design, the fun is just beginning when the ball hits the green. There’s a sense of wonder in waiting and watching to see what happens to the ball as it catches a slope, swale or hollow and races away.

That same sense of wonder will now carry over to shots that miss the fairway.

"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," USGA executive director Mike Davis said of the restoration.

Shots that stray from the fairway will be subject to the whim and fancy of Mother Nature now.

“Sometimes, they're going to be on sandy, hard pan,” Davis said. “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, its natural vegetation, that just comes up in these areas. Sometimes, the ball will be on pine needles, or up against a pine cone. It's going to give these players who miss a fairway just a different type of challenge.”

The fairways will also be wider than we’re used to seeing. 

“All things being equal, will it be easier?” Davis said. “Probably a little bit easier, but, I suppose, there’s an element of luck involved. If you get on hard pan, for a good player, it’s kind of a 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.”

Coore believes shots played from the wild, natural terrain will add to the excitement of the U.S. Open and U.S. Women’s Open.

“The uncertainty of shots that are going to be played from the natural rough, we think that is going to be one of the most interesting stories of the week,” Coore said. “We think you’re going to see some of the most spectacular recovery shots in U.S. Open history.”

While some of the best women in the world have expressed concerns over conditions they’ll be left with after the men are done, Davis is excited by the possibilities.

“Listen, we went into this knowing there would be risks,” Davis said. “But we went into it knowing there would be a lot more upside. It’s a two-week celebration of the best men and women, and there’s just so much more upside.”

The men could play Pinehurst No. 2 from 7,562 yards as a par 70, though Davis said it will likely never play that long. The women will play it from 6,649 yards, also as a par 70.

Davis said the idea is to see the women play using the same irons into greens with similar hole locations. Back in 2010, Davis set up Oakmont for the U.S. Open in 2007 and for the U.S. Women’s Open there in 2010.

Pinehurst No. 2

The par-5 fourth hole at Pinehurst No. 2

“I just remember hearing so many comments, questions of: How are the women going to handle Oakmont?” Davis said. “I always felt that those were really unfair questions, because it just showed almost a lack of appreciation of how good the women play the game. 

“I think that while that was a three-year’s difference, we really did try to set up Oakmont the same way. We had greens 14 ½ to 15 [on the Stimpmeter] for both weeks. The women handled it beautifully. Same fairway widths, same relative length on the distance.

“So, given the fact that these are back to back this year, it's going to showcase, I think, just how good the females can play the game.”

LPGA pros have publicly shared their concerns about going the second week, after the course and practice areas have been beaten up by the men. Some are on record saying they know the men wouldn’t have tolerated going second. Davis reiterated that agronomics was the primary factor in having the women go second. It’s easier, he explained, to take the greens from firm to slightly less firm than the other way around. Also, having the men go first, with more viewers and spectators, better sets the stage for audiences to tune in and compare how the women handle the challenges.

Vicki Geotze-Ackerman, the LPGA’s president, won the U.S. Women’s Amateur at Pinehurst No. 2 in 1989. She’s the only woman to win a USGA title at Pinehurst No. 2.

“From the LPGA players’ perspective, we can already see how this Women's Open is the most talked about and anticipated Women's Open yet,” Goetze-Ackerman said. “The increase in awareness and exposure for the event and women’s golf is a significant positive for the LPGA tour, as well as the game of golf. We feel that bringing the women's and men's games together is not only innovative and open minded, but a great opportunity to showcase the best of the best in the game of golf, for both genders. Personally, I think this is the coolest thing ever.”

LPGA commissioner Mike Whan understands his players’ concerns, but he also sees an opportunity playing after the men at Pinehurst.

“I say this to our players a lot, that you can’t dream big and be afraid of making mistakes,” Whan told earlier this year. “They are not mutually exclusive.

“We’ve talked about how to make the most out of this unique opportunity, in terms of exposure for the women worldwide. I think we have an opportunity to have more people watch the U.S. Women’s Open than have ever watched it before. I’m really looking forward to seeing how many people we can carry over into Week 2.”

Yes, the women will have challenges in the wake of the men. There will be divots to contend with, but Davis said that’s part of the game. He said when he told that to LPGA pros in a players’ meeting at the Founders Cup in Phoenix, half the players scowled at him and half laughed. He said fears that Pinehurst No. 2’s many collections areas around the greens will get beat up is unfounded.

“We saw very, very, very little divoting the last two Opens,” Davis said of collection areas around greens. “Most of the players who do decide to pitch it are more just clipping it. They're not really playing a type of flop shot that creates a divot.”

Between the divots and unlucky lies against wire-grass sprigs, this championship will ratchet up the ability of players to endure bad breaks.

While the USGA will soften the greens slightly for women, the aim is offer similar green speeds.

There looms a question about the health of the greens over two weeks. If the greens are pushed to the edge for the men, is there a danger they’ll be pushed over the edge, negatively impacting the women?

“The notion that these greens are going to be dead afterwards is simply not the case,” Davis said. “We feel extremely comfortable and we really have very little concerns about the health of the greens for a two-week period of time.”

A two-week period unlike anything golf has ever witnessed.

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After Further Review: Woods wisely keeping things in perspective

By Golf Channel DigitalMarch 19, 2018, 3:17 am

Each week, takes a look back at the week in golf. Here's what's weighing on our writers' minds.

On Tiger Woods' career comeback ...

Tiger Woods seems to be the only one keeping his comeback in the proper perspective. Asked after his tie for fifth at Bay Hill whether he could ever have envisioned his game being in this shape heading into Augusta, he replied: “If you would have given me this opportunity in December and January, I would have taken it in a heartbeat.” He’s healthy. He’s been in contention. He’s had two realistic chances to win. There’s no box unchecked as he heads to the Masters, and no one, especially not Woods, could have seen that coming a few months ago. – Ryan Lavner

On Tiger carrying momentum into API, Masters ...

Expect Jordan Spieth to leave Austin with the WGC-Dell Technologies Match Play trophy next week.

After all, Spieth is seemingly the only top-ranked player who has yet to lift some hardware in the early part of 2018. Dustin Johnson, Jon Rahm and Justin Thomas have all gotten it done, as have Jason Day, Phil Mickelson and most recently Rory McIlroy.

Throw in the sudden resurgence of Tiger Woods, and with two more weeks until the Masters there seem to be more azalea-laden storylines than ever before.

A Spieth victory in Austin would certainly add fuel to that fire, but even if he comes up short the 2015 champ will certainly be a focus of attention in a few short weeks when the golf world descends upon Magnolia Lane with no shortage of players able to point to a recent victory as proof that they’re in prime position to don a green jacket. – Will Gray

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Davies not giving up on win, HOF after close call

By Randall MellMarch 19, 2018, 3:06 am

PHOENIX – Laura Davies knows the odds are long now, but she won’t let go of that dream of making the LPGA Hall of Fame.

At 54, she was emboldened by her weekend run at the Bank of Hope Founders Cup. She tied for second, five shots behind Inbee Park.

“The more I get up there, I might have a chance of winning again,” Davies said. “I'm not saying I will ever win, but today was close. Maybe one day I can go closer.”

Davies is a World Golf Hall of Famer, but she has been sitting just outside the qualification standard needed to get into the LPGA Hall of Fame for a long time. She needs 27 points, but she has been stuck on 25 since her last victory in 2001. A regular tour title is worth one point, a major championship is worth two points.

Full-field scores from the Bank of Hope Founders Cup

Over her career, she has won 20 LPGA titles, four of them major championships. She was the tour’s Rolex Player of the Year in 1996. She probably would have locked up Hall of Fame status if she hadn’t been so loyal to the Ladies European Tour, where she won 45 titles.

Though Davies didn’t win Sunday in Phoenix, there was more than consolation in her run into contention.

“Now people might stop asking me when I'm going to retire,” she said.

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Davies impresses, but there's no catching Park

By Randall MellMarch 19, 2018, 2:40 am

PHOENIX – Inbee Park won the tournament.

Laura Davies won the day.

It was a fitting script for the Bank of Hope Founders Cup on Sunday, where nostalgia stirs the desert air in such a special way.

Two of the game’s all-time best, LPGA Hall of Famer Inbee Park and World Golf Hall of Famer Laura Davies, put on a show with the tour’s three living founders applauding them in the end.

Park and Davies made an event all about honoring the tour’s past while investing in its future something to savor in the moment. Founders Marilynn Smith, Shirley Spork and Marlene Hagge Vossler cheered them both.

For Park, there was meaningful affirmation in her 18th LPGA title.

In seven months away from the LPGA, healing up a bad back, Park confessed she wondered if she should retire. This was just her second start back. She won feeling no lingering effects from her injury.

“I was trying to figure out if I was still good enough to win,” Park said of her long break back home in South Korea. “This proved to me I can win and play some pain-free golf.”

At 54, Davies kept peeling away the years Sunday, one sweet swing after another. She did so after shaking some serious nerves hitting her first tee shot.

“It’s about as nervous as I’ve ever felt,” Davies said. “I swear I nearly shanked it.”

Davies has won 45 Ladies European Tour events and 20 LPGA titles, but she was almost 17 years removed from her last LPGA title. Still, she reached back to those times when she used to rule the game and chipped in for eagle at the second hole to steady herself.

“It calmed me down, and I really enjoyed the day,” Davies said.

With birdies at the ninth and 10th holes, Davies pulled from three shots down at day’s start to within one of Park, sending a buzz through all the fans who came out to root for the popular Englishwoman.

“People were loving it,” said Tanya Paterson, Davies’ caddie. “We kept hearing, `Laura, we love you.’ It was special for Laura, showing she can still compete.”

Full-field scores from the Bank of Hope Founders Cup

Davies relished giving all the young players today, who never saw how dominant she once was, some flashes from her great past.

“Yesterday, after I had that 63, a lot of the younger girls came up and said, `Oh, great playing today,”’ Davies said. “It was nice, I suppose, to have that. I still am a decent player, and I actually used to be really good at it. Maybe that did give them a glimpse into what it used to be like.”

She also relished showing certain fans something.

“Now, people might stop asking me when I'm going to retire,” she said.

Davies was the LPGA’s Rolex Player of the Year in 1996, when she won two of her four major championships. She was emboldened by the way she stood up to Sunday pressure again.

In the end, though, there was no catching Park, who continues to amaze with her ability to win coming back from long breaks after injuries.

Park, 29, comes back yet again looking like the player who reigned at world No. 1 for 92 weeks, won three consecutive major championships in 2013 and won the Olympic gold medal two years ago.

“The reason that I am competing and playing is because I want to win and because I want to contend in golf tournaments,” Park said.

After Davies and Marina Alex mounted runs to move within one shot, Park pulled away, closing ferociously. She made four birdies in a row starting at the 12th and won by five shots. Her famed putting stroke heated up, reminding today’s players how nobody can demoralize a field more with a flat stick.

“I just felt like nothing has dropped on the front nine,” Park said. “I was just thinking to myself, `They have to drop at some point.’ And they just started dropping, dropping, dropping.”

Yet again, Park showed her ability to win after long breaks.

In Rio de Janeiro two years ago, Park the Olympic gold medal in her first start back after missing two months because of a ligament injury in her left thumb. She took eight months off after Rio and came back to win the HSBC Women’s World Championship last year, in just her second start upon returning.

“I'm really happy to have a win early in the season,” Park said. “That just takes so much pressure off me.”

And puts it on the rest of the tour if she takes her best form to the year’s first major at the ANA Inspiration in two weeks.



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Rose: 'Never' has Rory putted as well as Bay Hill

By Ryan LavnerMarch 19, 2018, 1:20 am

ORLANDO, Fla. – Justin Rose didn’t need to ponder the question for very long.

The last time Rory McIlroy putted that well was, well …?

“Never,” Rose said with a chuckle. “Ryder Cup? He always makes it look easy when he’s playing well.”

And the Englishman did well just to try and keep pace.

After playing his first six holes in 4 over par, Rose battled not just to make the cut but to contend. He closed with consecutive rounds of 67, finishing in solo third, four shots back of McIlroy at the Arnold Palmer Invitational.

Full-field scores from the Arnold Palmer Invitational

Arnold Palmer Invitational: Articles, photos and videos

Rose said this weekend was the best he’s struck the ball all year. He just didn’t do enough to overtake McIlroy, who finished the week ranked first in strokes gained-putting and closed with a bogey-free 64.

“Rory just played incredible golf, and it’s great to see world-class players do that,” Rose said. “It’s not great to see him make putts because he was making them against me, but when he is, he’s incredibly hard to beat. So it was fun to watch him play.”